S-J/CHA Wild Foods Log
Daniel Baker, updated October 2007
Gather wild foods only from plants that are common and abundant. Even then, never decimate a local crop – always leave at least half for neighboring animals.
Mesquite Pods (Prosopis velutina): Gather from trees when they pull off easily. They can be gathered from the ground if they have not gotten wet, in which case they begin to rot. They can also be gathered green if near ripe and sun dried. Reject any mildewed, stained or insect infested pods.
In drought times look for trees with fatter pods - likely having some greater access to moisture. Dry the pods very well before grinding. If the pods have been stored during monsoon, they may need drying again as they absorb moisture from the air.
Bruchid beetles are pretty much unavoidable, though the cleaner the beans gathered (without the tell-tale holes) the better. One year I had an open bag of beans sitting out and ants got into them. They seemed to be leaving the pods alone and eating the newly hatched bruchids. I have also noticed much fewer beetles with gathering green pods.
[For more details on Mesquite trees in our area, including Fall mesquite processing festivals, see this link: Mesquite.]
Saguaro Fruit (Carnegiea gigantea): The most fun way to collect is to knock ripe fruit down with a long saguaro rib and have a partner try to catch them in a pan or bag as they fall. If they are wet and hit the ground they will pick up sand and pebbles. They can be collected from the ground if they dried sufficiently in the husk.
Heat the collected fruit without any added moisture, and bring them briefly to a low foamy boil to try to kill any insect eggs. Dry the cooked mass in oiled cookie pan spread about a quarter inch thick in the sun or oven. Cut in strips and store dried. It makes a tasty sweet fruit leather, but they can also be reconstituted. It is a more complicated process to remove the seeds, but I don’t bother as they are quite edible and add a little crunch.
I make “desert energy bars” consisting of saguaro fruit reconstituted in prickly pear juice, then mixed with enough mesquite flour to make a dough, spread on a cookie sheet about a quarter inch thick and sun or oven dry. It requires some experimentation to find the point where they are not too soft and wet, and not too dry and hard.
[For more details on Saguaros in our area, including specific harvesting events, processing, and recipes, see this link: Saguaros.]
Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii):
Juice: The easiest way I have found is to fill a big pot with fruit. Do not add any water, and you get just undiluted juice. Take a knife and slice through a bunch of the fruits and turn heat to medium low. The juice will drain and the fruits soften as they warm. Take a potato masher and mash the fruit a couple times as they soften until there is just pulp and juice. Strain through a colander; strain again through cheese cloth if you want a cleaner product. Keeps in fridge for a few weeks; freeze or can for longer storage.
Dried Fruit: Hold the fruits with tongs and don't bother with glochids, cut off the flower end and then halve to sun dry very completely. Just a few make a delicious tea. Try it with Ocotillo blossoms.
[For more details on Prickly Pear, see this link: Platyopuntia.]
Palo Verde Beans (Cercidium spp): This is a very plentiful resource, one tree yielding hundreds if not thousands of pods. From what I have read and observed, both the Blue Palo Verdes (Cercidium floridium) and the Foothill Palo Verdes (C. microphyllum) are edible, but some have preferences. Some native tribes reputedly held these in as high esteem as corn.
You can tell the Blues by the blue-green color of the bark and branches versus the more yellow-green of the Foothills. The Foothill Palo Verdes grow more on the slopes, seem to bloom later than the Blue, and have a clearly constricted pod. Also the flowers of the foothills have one white petal, but the blues are all yellow. There is a leaf distinction as well. Your own taste test is probably the best indicator of which you prefer to gather.
Harvest them when they are ripe and tasting like peas, and before the pod begins to turn brown. So long as they are not too bitter, I think they still cook up okay. You need to blanch them as soon as possible, submerging them in boiling water for a couple of minutes, otherwise the beans will continue to ripen and become unusable.
You can hand shell them right after blanching if you don't have tons. The pods are much easier to open then and the beans just pop out. For storage, dry, reconstitute and cook like any bean. They cook up pretty well.
Another method I tried last year with some success, but am still refining, is to let the pods dry very well in the pods after blanching, and then do some kind of threshing and winnowing routine. It worked well enough that it seems like a process to pursue if you have a lot of beans and want to experiment. Otherwise hand shelling works fine.
[For more details on Palo Verde, see this link: Palo Verde.]
Cholla Buds (Cylindropuntia spinosior): Collect just as purple flower tips are beginning to show. Use tongs or like to twist off branch. Soak covered over night. Rub off softened spines with hands or gloves. Cook fresh, or dry in shade rather than full sun as they will burn, and reconstitute as needed. Be sure that the buds are well dried however, as they may mold if not.
[For more details on Cholla cacti, see this link: Cylindropuntia.]
Salt Weed (Atriplex wrightii): A very good, already salted green. The leaves can also be dried and reconstituted.
Oreganillo (Aloysia wrightii): This is a very common shrub whose leaves make both a good spice and a delicious tea.
Chia seeds (Salvia columbaria): When the stalks and seed heads begin to turn brown, bend them over into a sack or tray and shake out the seeds. They are very nutritious.
Barrel Cactus Fruits (Ferocactus wislizenii): The fruits ripen in the winter to a bright yellow. They can be cut open and the pearly black seeds scraped out. They are delicious roasted in just a dab of oil with some salt. The yellow flesh of the fruit is sour but not bitter, and can be used to make a lemony drink.
[For more details on Barrel Cactus, see this link: Ferocactus.]