The desert may not seem like the kind of place that is abundant with food, but for the educated forager – there’s more food out there than you would think.
Warning: Use a reputable field guide to positively identify any wild plant before eating it.
Often found around farms and cultivated soils, amaranths (Amaranthus spp.) are a diverse group of tall weeds that are either annuals or short-lived perennials. Over 50 species are officially recognized. These tall weeds (6-7 feet) will commonly grow right in with crops and produce dense bunches of flowers that resemble willow catkins. Once ripe, these flower heads become seed heads, filled with hundreds or even thousands of small flat round seeds, typically black or tan colored. Their simple, alternate leaves are often greenish, but they can also be golden, purplish, or even red. One hundred grams of amaranth seed will provide 371 calories and plenty of B vitamins, along with iron, manganese, and other minerals. The tender leaves of young amaranth can be used as a good cooked green if you can’t wait for the seeds to ripen.
Despite its spiky ring of sword-like leaves and its general unwelcoming appearance, yucca species can be plentiful in the southwest, and even found in the eastern United States. It’s important to differentiate that this yucca is not the Latin American root vegetable yuca, aka cassava. These yucca (of which there are 49 species and 24 sub-species) are large perennial plants that can be a source of many survival supplies, including food. The creamy, white flower petals are easy to collect in early summer, and they may be eaten raw in salads or cooked with greens as a vegetable. They’re even better when battered and deep-fried. In most yucca species, the green seed pods that follow the flowers are technically edible and were eaten more like a desert emergency food in former times. The green or rotted leaves of any yucca plant will make an excellent fiber for cordage production, and the dried grey flower stalks are excellent friction fire drills. The crushed roots also release a soapy compound that can be used with water as a soap alternative.
A desert icon and the official State Flower of Arizona, the native saguaro cactus (Carnegiea gigantean), is a huge perennial cactus with a growth habit more like a tree than a typical cactus. Reaching heights up to 50 feet tall, these cacti bloom with white 3-inch flowers in the evenings of late May and June. A member of the cactus family (Cactaceae), this mighty plant grows plump juicy red fruits with edible black seeds – all the way at the top! Use a hook at the end of a long pole to collect. Five average-sized fruits will contain 167 calories, 4 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, vitamin C, vitamin B12, calcium, and iron.
Scientifically known as Juglans major, the Arizona walnut is a native tree that will not be found outside of the Southwestern region. A smaller tree (rarely reaching 50 feet tall), the Arizona walnut typically grows in rocky upland canyons and along waterways in the high desert and mountains. The leaves are pinnately compound in the alternate branch pattern, each one bearing 9 to 15 leaflets on the long green leaf stalk. Once the green catkin flowers mature into small walnuts, they will have a thin green husk that will turn dark brown as it ages. Like other walnuts, the outer husk hides a rock-hard shell containing white-fleshed, oily nut meats. These nuts can be eaten raw or cooked, just like other walnuts, and they contain similar nutrients.
So common in certain areas that ranchers consider it a nuisance plant, the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) grows wild, and it is also cultivated. Also called the Indian fig or paddle cactus, the pads are shaped like beaver tails and covered in long slender needles. Sometimes reaching heights of five feet tall, huge patches can grow to unmanageable sizes, and they reproduce easily from their fruit seeds and broken off pads. The fruits are oval and dark red when ripe. Prepare and eat with caution, even the fruits carry short bristly spines (which can be cut off or burned off). You can collect younger pads and ripe prickly fruit without killing the larger plant. Ripe fruit can be gently pulled off the cactus, and pads can be sliced off at the joints. Just make sure you wear thick leather gloves to protect yourself from the sharp spines! Both the sweet fruit and their seeds are edible raw or cooked. The pads can also be eaten raw or cooked, though grilling them over a fire to burn off the spines will be your best bet. One cup of prickly pear fruit will provide 61 calories, potassium, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B6, magnesium, phosphorus, and copper.