Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
June, 2006
Regional Report

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Devil's claw provides attractive green foliage and pretty flowers with minimal water and care.

Native Crops

"Summer reading" typically involves hauling the latest Grisham (or Collins or Clancy) novel to the beach along with armloads of other paraphernalia, but my relaxation time is spent catching up on plant catalogs and gardening books. I've already finished one that was so entertaining I read it cover to cover in one sitting.

Native Harvest: Authentic Southwestern Gardening, by Kevin Dahl (Western National Parks Association, 2006; $9), is part plant catalog, part gardening book, and part historical and cultural review. It contained such fun and useful bits of information that I couldn't put it down.

For example, did you know that Native American baskets made with devil's claw fibers were so leakproof that Arizona's early dairy industry used them to hold milk? Or that chiles help make cardinals' feathers red? Or that a sunflower grown by Native American Havasupai farmers at the Grand Canyon is the only variety known to have genetic resistance to a fungal rust that destroyed Australian sunflower fields?

Dahl writes that the Havasupai sunflower has been crossed with other varieties to develop resistance to the rust without spraying chemical fungicides. That important development emphasizes the value of the work performed by Native Seeds/Search, the Tucson-based nonprofit where Dahl is executive director. The organization's mission is to conserve, distribute, and document agricultural crop seeds important to the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. As we lose genetic plant diversity, who knows how many potential cures to plant and human ailments are also lost? Which of the many vanishing plant species might have become an important food crop for arid lands devastated by famine?

Dahl's book describes traditional corn, beans, squash, amaranth, chiles, devil's claw, cotton, gourds, melons, sunflowers, and herbs. It provides details on each plant's historical uses, variety characteristics, growing information, and recipes, such as blue corn pancakes and Hopi baked squash blossoms.

Heeding the Native Climate
The desert Southwest's hot summers can be tough on typical hybrid vegetable crops. Of course, there are many that will perform, but they tend to require a fair amount of attention and more than a fair amount of water. For low-maintenance gardening, try your hand at some of the native crops that Dahl describes. They have adapted over hundreds of years to survive our intense heat and sun, alkaline soil, and minimal rain. Many are short-season crops, internally timed to germinate, grow, fruit, and set seed in rhythm with the summer monsoons.

Devil's claw is a fun native to start with. It's a low-grower with nice-looking foliage. It requires little attention, puts out beautiful orchid-like flowers and an edible pod similar to okra. When the pod dries, it forms the fibrous "devil's claw" that is stripped by basketweavers.

Contrary to a gardener's good intentions or natural instincts, lavishing these native crops with rich soil and abundant moisture doesn't improve the harvest. Years ago I did that with tepary beans. I figured that if they performed well without it, wouldn't they grow like Jack's beanstalk on steroids with a little extra attention? Well, not quite. Although they were admirably lush, green, and downright attractive, the bean crop was minimal. I learned the hard way not to mess with Mother Nature.

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