DESERT DINING

Indigenous vegetation capable of providing sustenance

 

The South Western desert may not look like a supermarket, but a lot of the scenery is edible.

Picture an early resident American Indian, not European American walking along the edge of the a Valley in the South Western desert.

Even in early July, he or she could gather tender little green seeds of Indian rice grass. Cut open a succulent black-seeded yucca fruit. Chew on a couple of bitter juniper berries. Break off some sprigs of ephedra, also called Indian tea or Mormon tea, to take home to steep in hot water.

I did most all of the above on a recent short hike, just to prove how much the desert still yields.

I am a teacher with The Clark County School District (CCSD) in Las Vegas Nevada. Along with my other classes I Teach an outdoor survival course in Southern Nevada, found food for the grazing, even in an era of urban development that threatens to eat up what's left of Southern Nevada's natural landscape.

"It's not Vons," admitted Ronald, scanning the mountain base. And yet the environment, which Ronald calls one of the "most difficult survival areas in the world," none the less supported generations of resourceful Paiutes and, before them, Anasazi. Granted, the area's early populations did move to higher, cooler elevations for summer. Certain groups also cultivated plants. But the valley floor was their home, and primary breadbasket in the cooler seasons.

For a fun lesson in botany and anthropology, several Las Vegans familiar with our vegetation agreed to share their knowledge. But they all warned people not to risk trouble by trying to actually live off the land because:

Some plants are toxic. Ingesting sacra datura or jimson weed, for instance, could prove fatal.

Plants on public lands are usually illegal to collect. If a ranger sees you, you might have too take a ride in their jeep down the hill.

Some desert plants, such as cacti, grow so slowly that if harvested today, 100 years might pass before another specimen could grow to the same size.

Then there are some plants That are just plain in low supply. In a desert, "you can easily expend more energy looking around for food than you'd find, in terms of calories (in the plants you collected)," I should warned you. "There might be six or eight mallow plants in an acre. That's three or four bites."

Just as the commercial produce department's inventory changes seasonally, some of the desert's edible plants are available only part of the year. Spring is when the pickings are best.

But with those caveats in mind, here's a grocery list of foods the Southern Nevada desert offers.

Besides ephedra, plants that can yield beverages include the juniper tree, creosote bush, rabbit brush and sagebrush, whose leaves all were boiled. Berries from wild grape plants, found in moist soils, and wolf berry bushes also made beverages. The Southern Nevada Indians made these drinks.

The equivalence to an Indian 7-Eleven; is the versatile yucca plant. Early residents used just about every yucca component.

The yucca's root provided soap, its leaf fibers went to make rope, sandals, baskets and coarse cloth. Its buds, flowers, flower stalks, root and fruits can be eaten, according to "Flowers of the Southwest Deserts," a reference book at the local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. The fruits can be eaten raw or roasted.

Like the yucca, the Joshua tree is multipurpose. Indians boiled or roasted its fruits to eat. They wove its roots into baskets and tree fibers into sandals.

Nuts from the pinion pine, which grows in local mountains, were valued by Indians and remain prized by contemporary gourmet chefs.

Seeds were another important part of the diet for native desert people. The seeds could be eaten fresh or stored, coming from such plants as the chia, fiddle neck, bunch grass, Indian paintbrush. desert corsage and tansy mustard.

The mesquite tree is another seed source. It seeds and pods can be ground into an edible must or cooked into cakes. The pods are also good raw, some mesquite are sweeter then others.

A TV cartoons may depict cowboys who lop off cactus top and then drink the contents, but such imagery is fiction.

"The fruit of all cacti are edible. All are soft when ripe," Quoting from an Air Force training materials that prepare troops to survive in different climates, including the desert. In addition Any of the flat-leaf variety can be boiled and some can be roasted and eaten as greens once the spines are removed.

Tasting roasting or boiled prickly-pear pads. I would describe the taste as a cross between green pepper and green beans. I have also made a refreshing non sweet cactus drink by dicing prickly-pear pads, adding water and then blending. After straining out the pulp, you could add a little lemon and lime juice, then ices it before drinking.

For a sweet taste use the prickly-pear Itself. Just open the pear up by taking a stick to hold down the fruit so as not to get the thorns in you. then next use a knife or sharp rock to cut the ends nearly off. Next slices the fruit lengthwise, cutting into the fruit only about a half inch or four centimeters. Using something (sticks) to spread open the skin and take out the fruit. This can be eaten like this or used to make a sweet drink.

Local cacti include the hedgehog, beaver tail and Mojave prickly pear.

In general, plants with spines or prickles are edible. The spines are usually an evolutionary adaptation to protect an otherwise tasty plant from being devoured into extinction.

Edible greens of many other sorts grow in the desert, too. The following are items whose leaves the Indians boiled and ate: tansy mustard, curly dock, Indian spinach, wild cabbage and speedwell. The desert trumpet and thistle both have stems that, when young and fresh, can be munched raw. Plant roots can also provide nutrition. Local examples include bulbs from the mariposa and the desert hyacinth.

Salt is another commodity that can be obtained from deserts plants. The aptly named salt grass, which grows in seasonally wet areas. Indians scraped a salty substance off its leaves, then cooked it in ashes. The final product was eaten with other foods.

The Indians too had there junk food treats such as gum and candy.

In desert spring areas grows a cane, or reed, whose scientific name is Phragmites australis. It exudes a honey like sap that Southern Paiutes used to scrape and eat like candy.

Gum from the root of a plant commonly known as the gum bush, called Stephanomeria by scientists, can be chewed in the same way as modern chewing gum.

Besides ephedra, plants that can yield beverages include the juniper tree, creosote bush, rabbit brush and sagebrush, whose leaves all were boiled. Berries from wild grape plants, found in moist soils, and wolf berry bushes also made beverages.
 


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