Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
July, 2012
Regional Report

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Native edible Devil's Claw fruit resembles and tastes like okra.

Xeriscape Part III: Plant Selection: Native Edibles

Xeriscape design includes a set of seven principles to guide you in the creation and long-term maintenance of a colorful, earth-friendly landscape that suits your unique needs. Previous reports covered design, site analysis, whether to install turf, and varied plant selection topics. This report covers selecting edible plants for your landscape.

Although you may not be ready to grow a dedicated vegetable garden, there are well-adapted edibles that are also useful multipurpose landscape plants, providing some combination of colorful flowers, fragrance, screening, and shade while also producing something different and nutritious for the table. As a gardener I met recently put it, "If I'm going to spend the time and water on a landscape, I may as well get something to eat from it!"

Mesquite Trees
Seedpods can be ground into sweet, protein-rich flour. The pale golden seedpods are about 3 inches long and appear on the tree from June to September. A 5-gallon bucket of seedpods will generate about one pound of flour. Traditionally, native peoples used the flour as an important food staple. Transplant velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), native to the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, or honey mesquite (P. glandulosa), native to Texas and Mexico. Avoid South American hybrids such as Chilean mesquite, which are prone to blowing over in windstorms. Native trees are also a better choice to enhance habitat and food sources for native and migrating creatures.

These natives have pea-sized fruits with heat that may curl your nose hair. The plants reach a shrubby shape and size and live for many years, unlike annual hybridized peppers. Chiltepines may bear white flowers, green peppers, and red peppers at the same time, creating a colorful tapestry. In nature, the plants are often found growing beneath the canopy of a nurse plant, such as a mesquite tree, which provides protection from hot afternoon sun.

Devil's Claw
This traditional native grows as an annual through the summer heat. It features very pretty white and pink or rosy-purple, orchid-like flowers. Its green fruit pod looks and tastes like okra. It must be harvested and eaten when young and pliable or it becomes woody and unpalatable. When the pod completely dries, it splits open in the shape of a claw. Traditional Native American basket weavers use the claw fibers. Pull the claws apart to expose seeds with outer shells. Remove the shell, and voila, a nutritious edible seed. Devil's claw plants grow up to three feet tall and wide, but do not survive winter cold. However, they reseed readily, germinating during the next summer monsoon.

Prickly Pear Cacti Fruit
Ruby red fruits begin appearing in early summer, glorious in contrast to the green cacti pads. Fruits provide a feast of minerals, vitamin C, the amino acid taurine, and flavonoids. Prickly pear fruits are typically processed into syrup. The effort can be time-consuming, so if you prefer to leave fruits on the cacti, they attract fun-to-watch native birds such as cactus wrens and curve-billed thrashers.

Other Desert-Adapted Edibles
Other possibilities include seeds from ironwood (Olneya tesota); berries from Mexican elderberry (Sambucas mexicana), red barberry (Berberis haematocarpa), and desert hackberry (Celtis pallida); cucumber-flavored flowers from chuparosa (Justicia californica); foliage and flowers from Lemmon's marigold (Tagetes lemonii) and Mexican tarragon (Tagetes lucida); and fruit from banana yucca (Yucca baccata).

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