Edible and Medicinal Desert Plants Walking Tour
1:30 p.m. April 27; Tours move to 8:00am May 25, June 22
Prickly pear cactus fruits yield than just a colorful margarita mixer -- they're nutritious and have a unique taste. Both the pads and fruit of these cacti are a Sonoran Desert staple so popular they have been exported worldwide. BoyceThompson Arboretum is the place to learn about desert plants and their useful properties -- be here on the Fourth Sunday of April, May and June when ethnobotanist and Choctaw Tribal Nation member David Morris is our special guest tour guide. Daily hours return to the Summer Schedule May 1 and BTA is open 6am-3pm during May, June, July and August - and this tour moves to 8:00am May 25, June 22.
As with most other weekend guided tours here, the edible-medicinal plants walk is included with daily Arboretum admission of $10 for adults and $5 for ages 5-12. And please keep in mind that information shared on this tour does not constitute medical or dietary advice; opinions and views expressed by volunteers are strictly their own and do not necessarily represent the position of the Boyce Thompson Arboretum or its management.
Visitors can explore our Curandero Trail and learn more about useful desert plants on your own, too -- ask for the self-guided Curandero Trail guide booklet in our gift shop. On her Sunday walking tours Jean Groen explains ways that native plants have healed, fed and clothed desert peoples for the past thousand years.
She's co-author or "Foods of the Superstitions"and numerous other books about desert plants, most of them available in our gift shop, where you'll also find the more recent and expanded companion volume describing desert plants and recipes: "Plants of the Sonoran Desert and Their Many Uses."
Published in 2006, this newer book has 157 pages and describes how to identify and where to find three dozen plants, their medicinal uses and how these plants have been used by Sonoran Desert natives for hundreds of years.
Asked to name a few favorites, Jean says: "There are so many things you can make to eat and drink from parts of the plant. My absolute favorite food to make from the pads, nopalitos in Spanish, is a wonderful soup. Nopalitos are good in salad, salsa, scrambled eggs, and pickle relish using the nopalitos in place of cucumbers. Prickly pear fruits, also called "tunas," are wonderful made into brandied tunas. For beverages there are Prickly Pear blush, prickly pear tea, cactus shakes, and my all time favorite: prickly pear margaritas."
"We try to portray the Sonoran Desert for what it is: a wonderland of mountains, rivers, trees, cacti, flowers, and wildlife to be enjoyed, used, and left intact for generations to come," says Groen. Her new book contains 72 recipes, 47 color pictures, and a wealth of information. It is available here at the Arboretum and also at the Superstition Mountain Museum in Apache Junction, Tonto National Monument visitor center near Roosevelt Lake, at the Casa Grande Ruins and the Besh Ba Gowah archaeological park in Globe. "My second favorite plant is the mesquite tree. Almost every part of the tree can be put to good use. The Indians used it for medicine, food, tea, implements, weapons, twine, and paint. I use the pods to make jelly and to make flour which can be substituted in place of regular flour. You wouldn't want to substitute more than a half-cup in each cup of regular flour. The mesquite flour will make the product sweet so youmight want to decrease the sugar called for. Also, the mesquite flour has much less gluten than regular flour so you might want to make note of this when making yeast bread."
Tour guide Dave Morris is a fan of jojoba seeds, shown in the photos at left. These acorn-size seeds can take on a mild hazlenut flavor after being lightly roasted. Jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis) is also known by the nicknames "goat nut," deer nut and coffeebush -- the latter from its reputation as an acceptable coffee substitute when mature seeds are roasted. Waxy oil pressed from the nuts is widely used in shampoos and skin lotions; tea brewed from jojoba leaves can sooth inflamed mucous membranes.
Ask Dave Morris about his favorite desert plant and he cites the agave. "Fleshy leaves of the agave were the source of fiber (sisal) for the early desert natives. The fibers would be used for cordage, rope, baskets, mats and sandals. The heart of the agave was roasted and eaten and the leaf tea is thought to relieve arthritic pain," said Morris. Learn more about this plant, about creosote and others which continue to nourish, heal and clothe people of the Sonoran desert. Here's another, too: Native Americans in the desert refer to the mesquite tree as the "tree of life". The pods can be ground up and they provided the main source of flour until the introduction of European heat, rye and barley. The bark of the esquite can be boiled to produce a germ-killing wash for minor cuts and scrapes. The Piipash (Maricopa) obtain a black paint from mesquite bark that is used to add designs to their traditional pottery."
Boyce Thompson Arboretum is affiliated with the UA's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in addition to being an Arizona State Park. UA students, faculty and staff may bring your CatCard or University I.D. to save an addition dollar off admission!
Read about other weekend guided tours and events