Prickly Pear

The prickly pear is a common sight throughout the Southwest, with the prickly magenta fruit finding many uses in the kitchen.  The delicate flavor is remarkably similar in texture to the watermelon, but you will need to remove or spit out the seeds. 

Cooks and chefs use prickly pear to flavor cream cheese, make uniquely flavored cupcakes and candies, and even create delicious sauces for fruit salads by boiling the fruit with orange and lemon. Click this link to learn the proper technique to cut and prepare prickly pears.

You can buy prickly pear at markets and natural food shops, but if you plan on harvesting them yourself, make sure you wear heavy work gloves when handling them. Give them a hard scrub to remove all traces of prickly barbs. 

Saguaro Cactus

Another prickly resident of the Southwest, the saguaro cactus, is famous for its tasty ruby-colored fruit.  It's a rare treat because it only ripens in late June, and the pods hold around a tablespoon of edible fruit - a necessary sacrifice by mother nature to make room for the more than 2,000 seeds. 

Saguaros only start producing the fruit after 40 years old, so it's a good thing they have an average lifespan of 200 years. You will need a long stick to reach the fruit, which tastes faintly of strawberries. You can eat them raw or use the pulp in jams, syrup, and wine. 

Barrel Cactus Fruit

It might seem like all the edibles in Arizona come with sharp prickles and spines but bear with us as this is the last one for this list. The barrel cactus produces a fruit that yellows as it ripens. The tart-tasting flesh can be eaten raw or used in cooking. Unlike the other two prickly edibles, you can use barrel cactus fruit seeds as a protein source, but you will need to grind them down into meal first. 

You will often come across information telling you the barrel cactus is a good source of water. This information is incorrect because ingesting the juice will accelerate dehydration rather than prevent it. 

Mesquite

The mesquite is a small shrub or tree common throughout the Southwest. The plant produces long, bumpy pods that have been a source of food to humans and animals just about forever. 

The Native Americans used all parts of the shrub as a food source, but it was also an essential part of the culture and economy. They used the bark for baskets, fabrics, and medicine. 

The thorns were used for awls in leatherwork, and leaves made a medicinal tea used as an eyewash and a treatment for stomach aches and headaches.

The mesquite pod is the most popular part of the tree. The nutritious pulp contained inside is an excellent nutrition source and can be eaten directly from the tree.

There are three main mesquite varieties; honey mesquite, velvet mesquite, and screwbean mesquite (the least flavorful of the bunch). Recipes for ground-up mesquite pods include molasses for hotcakes, flour tortillas, and cornbread, so it's quite a versatile ingredient in the kitchen. 

Jojoba Nuts

You have undoubtedly seen plenty of beauty products listing jojoba as an ingredient because of the oil's excellent moisturizing properties. The jojoba nut also has its uses in the kitchen for cooking or as a snack with tastes and textures similar to the almond nut. 

Ironwood

The Desert Ironwood has dark, dense wood, grey bark, tiny thorns, and dark-green leaves. The edible flowers are a lovely shade of pink, and you can also use the seeds as a food source. 

Harvesting the seed pods is easiest when you place a tarp on the ground and gently shake the tree, but make sure you don't use any pods that have already fallen. You can tell if the pods are ready because they will be pale yellow and dry. They should also taste slightly sweet and peanut-like. If they have a chalky taste, you have started harvesting too late. 

Process and store the seeds immediately after harvesting. Processing is done by cleaning the ironwood seeds, blanching, and then freezing in dated freezer bags. You can eat the seeds as is, sprouted, or used as a garnish for salads. The flower can be eaten raw, candied, or used in salads. 

Wolfberry

The wolfberry's bright, red berry is shortlived on the stem of the thorny, woody shrubs, but if you get them when they are ripe, you can indulge in their distinctive tart flavor with a hint of salty tomato. Wolfberries are related to the goji berry and are also packed full of antioxidants and nutrients. 

Cooks and chefs have found many different uses for wolfberries in the kitchen, as they use them for everything from wolfberry juice to a wolfberry sauce for steaks and even rice vermicelli. [* https://cookpad.com/us/search/wolfberry]

Agave

The agave plant traveled from northern Mexico to Arizona by way of trading between native Sonorans.  

The flowers can be eaten when steamed or boiled, with many people adding batter and frying them or using them in their scrambled egg recipes. The pollen tips add a bitter flavor but can be removed. 

Agave leaves should be harvested during the winter or spring when their sap content is at its highest. Leaves are cut into thick chunks and roasted or baked for a sweet taste reminiscent of pineapple. 

Tequila and mescal are two popular alcoholic beverages made from the agave plant, with tequila coming from the blue agave plant and mescal made from the agave americana. 

Palo Verde Seeds

The Palo Verde tree seeds are edible, providing you time the harvest to when the pods are green and the seeds are still small. If the seeds are round and fat, they are tough to eat, but they will still be sweet on the inside. The best time to harvest is when the seeds are on the verge of plumping up but still retain their lozenge shape. 

If a taste test reveals the seeds to be chalky, you have missed the harvesting window. Don't worry too much, though. You just need to wait a little longer until the pods are dry when you can harvest them again. Brown seeds need to be shelled and frozen and are best eaten as sprouts. 

You can blanch and store palo verde seeds, which you can puree, ferment, add to salads, brine, and can them. Mature seeds are also ground and used to make a versatile flour. At 41% protein content, they are also a fantastic source of this essential nutrient. 

Desert Chia Sage

Desert chia is a close relative of chia, a popular health food found in markets worldwide. The edible seeds are highly nutritious and make a tasty addition to smoothies and desserts. You can harvest the seeds from the spikey dried seed head for a nutritional snack that delivers a quick burst of energy. 

The leaves of the desert chia add spice to soups, pasta, and meats. Some Southwesterners even use the leaves to brew a cup of tea. Native Americans used most of the plant to make gruel, flour, and drinks from the stems, leaves, and seeds. 

Pinyon Pine

Both pinyon pine species - Pinus monophylla and Pinus edulis - are valued for their large edible seeds. The seeds, called pine nuts, are a rich source of calories and full of flavor. The pitch of the tree, although not edible, is used to create a primitive style of glue. 

Only pinyon pine trees between 10 to 25 years old will produce nuts, and harvesting is quite challenging. Pine seeds are found in the pinecones, which need 18-months to reach maturity. The pine nuts are ready for harvest sometime before the pinecone begins to open, making them extremely difficult to access.

The most efficient way is to place the cones in burlap bags that are then left in the sun to dry over 20 days or so. The cones are then smashed to release the seeds. The fun isn't over yet, because every seed has its own shell, which can be either tough or easy to remove. 

Pine nuts are popular in salads, with raw ones possessing a slightly sweet buttery flavor and soft texture. Roasting pine nuts brings out more of their flavor but makes them crunchy. 

As you can see, there is no shortage of edible plants native to Arizona. The above list above represents just a few of the favorite varieties found around Arizona, which have many uses as snacks and ingredients for adding unique flavors and textures to meals and desserts. Be warned, though; there are also many plants out in the desert wilderness that will make you sick or kill you if you mistakenly ingest them.  Please take the time to understand what a plant is before you put it in your mouth. 



References:

[1] https://www.experiencescottsdale.com/stories/post/edible-desert-plants/

[2] https://www.desertusa.com/lil/Mesquite-Beans-recipes-lil.html

[3] https://www.azcentral.com/story/entertainment/dining/2016/07/07/arizona-desert-plants-you-can-eat/86807906/

[4] https://www.desertharvesters.org/native-plant-food-guides-the-desert-can-feed-you/desert-ironwood/

[5] https://www.desertmuseum.org/visit/sheets/Lyciumspp.pdf

[6] https://www.gourmetsleuth.com/articles/detail/agave

[7] https://www.houzz.com/discussions/1737353/palo-verde-peas

[8] https://www.plantsnap.com/blog/5-edible-desert-plants/