Article Index
Site Search

Edible Desert Landscapes

Kirti Mathura

ALL OF US ARE FAMILIAR with the harvest of the more traditional vegetable, herb, and fruit crops. You might also have some edibles in your desert landscape that could be tossed in a salad, simmered in spaghetti sauce, scrambled in your Saturday morning eggs, or blended into a smoothie. Some plants have historic uses dating back centuries, while other applications are fresh and the newest in gourmet cuisine.

Euel Gibbons would have been impressed with our desert Prickly-pear cacti (Opuntia spp.) as “many parts are edible!” Various species offer sweet tasty fruits that develop atop the pads after the bloom season, summer into fall. These can be enjoyed fresh or used for making anything from jam to sorbet. The young pads themselves are cooked in various ways or pickled. Different types of prickly-pears have slightly different fruits and pads. If you have the space in your yard you might want to grow a few varieties for varying uses. Just be sure to offer them well-drained soil and a sunny location.

The flower buds of the closely related cholla cacti (Cylindropuntia spp.) are harvested, roasted, and used in soups and other dishes.

Fruits of many other cacti are sweet treats as well. The various hedgehogs (Echinocereus spp.) that look so nice nestled next to boulders in the landscape offer delicious fruits late in the springtime. They can be grown in full or partial sun. Even smaller is our native Fishhook Pincushion cactus (Mammillaria grahamii). The fruits are very small, but oh-so-tasty. This cactus does not fare well baked in the afternoon sun of summer, so tuck it under a desert shrub for some light shade. The Pincushion blooms in the spring and usually another time or two with the monsoon season, so a few rounds of fruit develop as well. Even our Arizona Queen of the Night (Peniocerus greggii) provides luscious fruit when the exquisite night blooming flowers get pollinated.

Longtime relished by native Tohono O’odham people is the Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) fruit. The annual harvest was a major event that marked the New Year for these desert dwellers. Still today the fruit is important in their culture, and we can also find syrups and other fruit products in specialty markets. If you have a young Saguaro in your landscape you will have to wait a few years for a harvest, since they typically don’t begin to bloom and set fruit until they are about fifty years of age!

The Red Barberry (Berberis haematocarpa) is a native shrub that is covered with brilliant golden-yellow flowers in the spring, followed by deliciously tart orange pea-sized fruits. This shrub grows in a large mounding form reaching 6 to 8 feet in height and spread, and has foliage that resembles prickly holly leaves. The fruits are fun to snack on while working in the garden, but best eaten in moderation. Barberry is best grown in well-drained soil with full sun, but can tolerate a slight bit of shade.

Another good-sized shrub is Fremont’s Thornberry (Lyciu fremontii). It grows 6 to 8 feet tall and wide and prefers well-drained soil. It is fine with full sun exposure or even moderate shade. Thornberry blooms in February and at least once more during monsoon season, developing small pendulous lavender colored flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. After pollination, small oval red fruits with a mild flavor develop. Native peoples used to collect the fruits and eat them fresh, or dry them to use later in cooked dishes. Another species, L. exsertum, makes an equally wonderful landscape plant.

We have a few types of sumac native to Arizona. Desert Sumac (Rhus microphylla), Sugar Sumac (R. ovata), and Skunk Bush (R. aromatica ssp. trilobata) produce very small cream colored flowers followed by reddish mouth-watering tart fruits during the summer. Fruits can be nibbled raw or crushed and mixed with water to make a refreshing beverage. Another name for Skunk Bush is Lemonade Berry, based on historic use of the fruits. This shrub can grow anywhere from 3 to 6 feet tall and wide with dark green lobed leaves, and does better outside of the Valley proper. The smaller leaved Desert Sumac thrives in the true heat of the desert, ranging from 4 to 6 feet in height and 6 to 8 feet in spread. Larger yet is the Sugar Sumac with large ovate leathery leaves and fruits that have a gooey sweet coating. It grows from 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. All of the sumacs can grow in full sun or light shade conditions, with well-drained soil.

With all these fruits remember — as soon as they begin to ripen you will be vying with birds and other wildlife for the harvest!

The native Mesquite trees (Prosopis spp.) produce bean-like pods (or cork-screw-like pods in the case of the Screwbean Mesquite) following the late spring bloom. Tree branches hang heavy with the seed pods by mid-summer. Collected when fully ripe, they can be ground into a flour that has a pleasant caramel-like flavor that is wonderful for baking. Of course the sweetness will vary from tree to tree.

Chuparosa (Justicia californica) is a great shrub ranging from 3 to 5 feet in height and width. It is versatile in that it is happy with all day sun or moderate shade exposure. It produces heavy bloom from mid or late winter through the spring, and also in the summer with a good monsoon rain. The tubular flowers are typically red, but a yellow form is also available. Either will attract hummingbirds to your garden. Flowers can be sprinkled in salads for a light cucumber flavor combined with the sweetness of the nectar.

These are just a few of the Arizona natives that can embellish your garden as well as your table. Grab your harvest basket and take a stroll through your yard. You’ll find many plants are delicious and good for you!

For more great edibles, check your library for Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert, by Wendy C. Hodgson. More information and actual food products can be found at Native Seed/SEARCH in Tucson (


PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend