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Trees, Flowers and Grasses
of the Desert Southwest-
Edible,Medicinal, and Nuisance Plants

Page 1- Pinyon Pine, Mormon Tea, Prickly Pear Cactus
Page 2- Cattails, Purslane, Lemonadeberry
Page 3- Prince's Plume, Poison Ivy, Russian Olive
Page 4- Mountain Mahogany, Willow, Fremont Barberry

An Introduction to Desert Flora

We will follow the same theme addressing plants as we have on the rest of our pages. As with most other topics we have covered, flora of the desert is an endless topic. To learn everything about plants of the desert one could spend a lifetime. So we will begin by presenting the most common plants you might encounter, discussing their properties and usefulness, and move on from there.

At one time or another nearly every plant found in the southwest desert has been used for something. Many of them provided staple foods for the ancient desert dwellers. Some provided materials for weaving baskets, sandals, for making clothing, weapons and tools, and of course for making shelter and fire. Knowing how to use plants comes with experience- experience of the plants, the seasons, specific locations and even with the passage of years. It can be enjoyable and comforting to be able to pick out some of these plants, maybe give them a taste test, and know that in a pinch they are there to provide food or medicine.

For more details on the shrubs, trees, flowers, grasses, and plants in general of the southwest desert, a brief bibliography is given below in Amazon link form. Click the links for more information about a specific title. These are the books that we currently use for identification and information.

As a long-time desert dweller, there are a number of plants that come to mind whenever I think about the desert. A few of these are the pinyon pine and juniper, sagebrush, Mormon tea, prickly pear cactus, cottonwood, cattail, and maybe tamarack (a.k.a. tamarisk).

Pinyon Pine

As kids in Nevada we came to know the Pinyon Pine quite well. The tree almost became legendary. Each fall there came a certain time when many of us would be carrying around a bag of pine nuts in our pockets at school. And not everyone had pine nuts in their pockets. Sometimes we would have collected them ourselves, other times someone would have given them to us. Many years my pine nuts were given to me by a Shoshone friend, whose family and extended family collected them in the manner of the old people, making them even more important. I collected with them a couple of years and recall the special sticks they kept on hand for pulling the cones down out of the trees, the special blankets the had for laying out under the trees to catch the fresh nuts, and the festive feeling of his large family collecting nuts together. It was a scene straight from an anthropology textbook, and one I will never forget- children running around, hands sticky with fresh pine sap, laughing and playing. The younger men and women were pulling cones from the trees, filling large bags with cones and smaller bags with nuts which were ready to roast, or eat. And there were the older people sitting around on blankets, pulling nuts from the cones that were ready to give them up, speaking Shoshone, possibly talking about when they first came to this harvest site many years before.

And so the pine nut became a sacred object for us, as it was for the old people who lived in the Great Basin before us. The Paiute and Shoshone people depended on pine nuts for their very lives. For a very informative as well as entertaining ethnographic work on the use of pine nuts by the Paitues of the Great Basin, see the work by Margaret Wheat titled Survival Arts Of The Primitive Paiutes.

Pinyon pine tree, mouth of Step Canyon, Cedar Mesa, Utah
Pinyon pine tree- This photo was taken in May of 2007. No fresh, large cones are readily visible. However, upon close examination of the tree, many smaller cones will be found. These cones will be ripe the following year.

Most Pinyons do not offer a crop of nuts each year. In some locations you may visit the same tree year after year and see very few, if any, fresh cones. Pine nut crops are affected by such obvious factors as water- spring runoff through fall rains, and the physical location of the tree- elevation, soil conditions, and proximity to a water source. When you find a tree loaded with nuts it is truly a treat to be able to stand for half an hour eating fresh nuts, then walk away from a tree still heavy with food for the next one who comes along.

Mormon Tea

Growing up we knew Mormon tea by the name squaw tea. It is also referred to as Indian tea, Brigham tea, Joint Fir, and its Generic name, ephedra. Mormon tea is found throughout the desert southwest. The flavor of the plant varies by elevation, terrain and proximity to water. A plant found in a streambed may be a meter high and have long, light green, juicy, almost sweet tasting needles. One found on a mesa top may be 8 inches tall with dark green, bitter needles. The most common use for the plant as the name implies is steeping the needles and making a tea. A healthy plant makes a drink reminiscent of a green tea. While hiking, chewing on a needle helps to freshen and liven the mouth.

Mormon tea
Mormon Tea- This photo shows a mature Mormon Tea bush in a location with adequate water. The detail below shows the jointed needles of the plant.

mormon tea- closeup

Prickly Pear Cactus

The Prickly Pear cactus is another easily identifiable plant. It is found throughout southeast Utah, the Four Corners, and the western United States. Literature would have us believe that this cactus provides a feast, as well as plentiful water. But the plant, while being useful, does not provide as much food or water as is commonly thought.

prickly pear cactus with ripe fruits The Prickly Pear leaves, or cactus pads, can be eaten at any time of the year. But use caution- not only do you need to peel and carefully remove the visible spines from the exterior surface of the plant, but they extend into the juicy pulp, and must be removed from there as well. If you do not get them all out, you will know it once you start eating. Larry Olsen in Outdoor Survival Skills recommends scorching them in a fire to burn off the spines. He also states that the seeds can be ground into flour.

The best time to eat the Prickly Pear is in the fall, when the fruits are ripe. While not providing as much food as you might think at first glance- the center of each fruit is filled with seeds- they are a treat to eat and well worth the time it takes to peel them. The flavor and consistency are reminiscent of a cross between kiwi and watermelon. Be careful of the very small spines that extend into the flesh of the fruits. While not as bad as those in the cactus leaves, they can become uncomfortable.

prickly pear cactus fruit

Prickly Pear Cactus Fruit- Perfectly ripe cactus fruit ready to peel and eat.

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