5 Edible Desert Plants

The dry, barren landscape of the desert might not be the first place you’d go foraging for a snack. However, desert plants offer some unexpected culinary opportunity. Though many desert plants look threatening and unappetizing, many are safe to eat. Surprisingly, many edible plants high in vitamins grow in the desert.

Knowing about these plants could come in handy in a survival situation! They also can create unique meals that are good sources of many essential nutrients. When foraging for wild plants in the desert, it is important to distinguish the edible parts from the rest. Going foraging with a guide is the surest way to find tasty edible plants in the wild. However, this guide can help you identify a few of the exciting wild foods the desert has to offer.

 

 

 

Prickly pear fruit at varying levels of ripeness with red, orange and green fruits on plates on a table.

Peeled prickly pear fruit at varying levels of ripeness. Photo by Tomás Castelazo

 

1. Prickly Pear Cactus – Opuntia Velutina

 

One of the most common desert foods is the prickly pear. This cactus grows in flat, paddle-shaped pads called cladodes by botanist or Nopales by cooks. The pads are good to eat once the spines have been thoroughly removed. These pads can then be cut into strips and eaten raw in salads or cooked with other vegetables.

Though the pads are a good source of food, prickly pears also provide a delicious fruit. These red, pear-shaped cactus fruits are sweet and juicy.

Prickly pear fruit and pads are an excellent source of essential nutrients. These include fiber, vitamin C and calcium.

Read more about how prickly pear is being used in material sciences!

 

 

The yellow flowers of a mesquite tree

The yellow flowers of a mesquite tree. Photo by Curtis Clark

 

2. Mesquite – Prosopis spp.

 

You’ve probably heard of Mesquite as a smoky flavoring on meats and chips. The wood is commonly used to smoke meats due to the earthy flavor of its smoke. However, mesquite can be used in more than processed snack foods.

It grows pods that look very similar to garden peas. The dry seeds can be ground into a nutritious flour that has a long history of use.

As a legume (member of the pea family) it provides vital protein by absorbing nitrogen from the air. In addition to being a great plant protein, mesquite provides significant amounts of iron, manganese, and potassium. It also has a low glycemic index which makes it a good choice for diabetics.

The mesquite tree grows throughout the American Southwest. It is extremely common in Arizona, Southern California, and Mexico. It includes many species in the genus Prosopis.

Read more about interesting plants in the closely related genus Acacia.

 

 

Blooming desert chia with purple clumps of flowers on tall stalks.

A bush of desert chia growing in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Jarek Tuszyński

 

3. Desert Chia – Salvia hispanica

 

Desert chia is an herb closely related to the popular health food chia. The seeds are edible and both of these plants are highly nutritious. The seeds can be used to make puddings and smoothies.

Over the past decade, chia seeds have become a popular health-food staple. They are a relatively recent addition to most Western diets. However, chia has long been known to the Rarámuri indigenous people of Chihuahua, Mexico, as well as other Native American groups.

This plant grows in small stalks to bushes with beautiful blue/purple flowers that grow in clumps around the stem.

 

 

Century Plant bloom in front of mountains and clouds

Flowering agave plant. Photo by AlbertHerring

 

4. Agave – Agave spp.

 

Agave is a distinctive desert plant that provides food, fibers, sweeteners, and tequila!

The leaves, flower stalks, flowers, and even the seeds of the agave plant are all edible. Agave is a large genus, containing many wild and cultivated species. Many of these are far too dry or tough to eat, though boiling them can make this easier.

The sweeter and more succulent species produce agave nectar. This sweetener is popular for its low glycemic index. This sugar can be fermented and distilled to produce tequila and mezcal.

There are many other interesting and important species of agave. The century plant gets its name from its rare flowering. These flowering stalks can reach heights up to 8 meters (26 feet).

 

 

Pinyon Pine on a ridge with sky in the background

Pinyon Pine. Photo by Dcrjsr

 

5. Piñon Pine – Pinus spp.

 

Piñon pine or pinyon pine is a group of pine tree that thrives in desert environments. There are about a dozen species of piñon that grow throughout the American Southwest and Mexico.

This tree is the primary source of pine nuts. Though piñon pines are common, the process of collecting these nuts is difficult. Trees also must be between 10-25 years old before they begin to produce pine nuts.

These small nuts are delicious and nutritious. They can be eaten raw or roasted.

All species of pine actually produce edible nuts. However, most are too small to be a good source of food.

 

 

The desert has so much more

 

Though the desert may look barren and desolate, it has much to offer than meets the eye.

This list is only a small selection of what the desert has to offer. There are many more desert plants that provide food, medicine, and flavor. For an exhaustive book on desert edibles in the Sonoran desert, check out Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.

Desert plants have evolved many unique adaptations to their harsh environment. If you are interested in desert plants, take a look at our articles desert plants such as cacti and succulents.

 

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