A Perennial Food Guild for the Arid American Southwest
Edible Permaculture Plants You Can Grow in Arid Regions
If you live in an arid region, at some point you have probably felt envy when looking at pictures of food forests from other climates. You see countless varieties of plump fruits as far as the eye can see, with beautiful flowers, herbs, and annual vegetables growing from every nook and cranny.
It doesn’t seem fair. The idea that you could just go out and plant apples, blueberries, and strawberries in the middle of your yard is laughable. You might pull it off, but it will be a full-time job and your water bill will go through the roof. Many of us just shrug and say, “Well, you can’t do that here.” And that’s partially true – you can’t easily grow blueberries in your yard in Texas, New Mexico, or Arizona. But if you are willing to open your mind to wolfberries and other lesser-known plants, you can grow an edible guild just as useful, and beautiful, as those you see in wetter climates. There are some great perennial edibles that are well suited to the high temperatures and dry conditions of the southwest. They may not be as glamorous or as well-known as the fruits that you see in pictures from Florida or Oregon, but there are some good candidates that deserve a place in a perennial desert food guild.
In the list that follows, I have omitted many more desirable edibles – like citrus, stone fruits, and blackberries – that might fare well on your property, depending on the amount of water and shade that you have available. For the moment, we’re going to focus on native and well-adapted edibles that can survive harsh summer conditions with little supplemental water, and that also enable function stacking in tough spots.
The Maligned Mesquite Tree
Frequently regarded as a “trash tree,” the mesquite is perhaps the most important plant in this list. Infamously long thorns make it unwelcome in many yards and gardens, but it provides several valuable services to the soil and its neighbors, and it has many practical uses for the permaculturist.
Mesquite is renowned for its status as a pioneer plant. In dry, poor soil, mesquite is often the first sizable plant to repopulate clear cut or overgrazed dry land. And its presence is sorely needed. As a legume, mesquite is a nitrogen fixer. There is an old saying in Texas, known to be true by ranchers and cattle alike, that during times of prolonged drought, the last green grass will be found underneath the mesquite trees. The free nitrogen around mesquites is only part of the reason why this grass is still green. Thousands of tiny deciduous leaves make the shade cast by mesquite trees much like that of a commercial shade cloth. It casts a light, evenly distributed shade that protects the ground underneath from intense sunlight, while allowing enough light through to sustain most sun-loving plants. Each autumn, the tree sheds its tiny leaves, allowing winter sun through and blanketing the surrounding ground with a speedy layer of natural compost. These factors make mesquite an ideal nursery tree for establishing edible perennials in arid environments.
With a little work to collect and process its beans, mesquite can also be a valuable source of food. By some accounts, mesquite beans were the single most important food for the Native Americans of the Sonora Desert; more important than any grain, including corn. These beans are a great source of plant-based protein. Gruel made from ground mesquite beans sustained desert tribes through the winter, in between harvests of cultivated crops. In addition to gruel, mesquite flour was used in broth, gravy, pudding, bread, and even a slightly alcoholic punch (1). Today, adventurous home brewers and distillers are rediscovering the potential of the sugar-laden mesquite bean for fermentation in wine, beer, and liquor.
Mesquite can also provide a nice supplemental income stream for those with enough land to grow it as a production crop. Mesquite wood fetches a high price for its use in cooking meats. It can also be sold as a raw material for furniture, flooring, and various crafted and carved wood products. Any wood that cannot be sold is useful at home as firewood, fence posts, tool handles, and mulch. Beans that are not used make great fodder for cattle and other livestock.
If the pesky thorns are a deal breaker for you, one good alternative to mesquite is the leucaena (lew-SEE-nuh; Leucaena leucocephala). This tropical import fixes more nitrogen than mesquite, but its seeds must be cooked before being eaten, and are poisonous to some animals. There is a wealth of information available on mesquite, leucaena and other desert legumes from The University of Arizona’s Desert Legume Program (2).
Using Wolfberry in the Perennial Food Garden
Wolfberry is a native shrub that grows naturally throughout the United States. There are many edible varieties of wolfberry, a few of which do well in the arid southwest. Our native wolfberries are close relatives of the Asian goji berry, which is famed as a “superfood” for its nutritional density and high concentration of antioxidants.
Torrey’s wolfberry (Lycium torreyi) is a native species that grows naturally among mesquite trees in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It grows in dense thickets, regularly reaching 6 feet in height, occasionally growing up to 12 feet. It grows well in poor, dry soils, and benefits from the presence of the mesquite. In addition to providing a nutritional boost in your diet, the berries are favored by birds and the bush provides habitat for birds and small creatures.
Agarita for the Arid Food Guild
Filling in underneath the mesquite in our desert food guild is the agarita (Mahonia trifoliata). This wonderful shrub is native to Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. It regularly grows to 6 feet, and can reach 8 feet in good conditions. Agarita is evergreen, and its holly-like leaves are tipped with sharp spines. Agarita is a true survivor, able to withstand punishing summer heat with minimal water. It grows wild in full sun to partial shade, and it thrives along edges, often flourishing naturally under the canopy of mesquite trees.
The sweet and tart berries of the agarita are edible for humans and wildlife. These berries earned it another common name, the wild currant. The berries can be eaten raw, but they are most commonly used to make jelly and pies (3). In a crunch, the berry’s seeds can be roasted and ground to be used as a coffee substitute.
Agarita is especially effective for drawing wildlife in to the guild. Birds and mammals relish the sweet berries. Bees are drawn to its fragrant yellow flowers, and many beekeepers use agarita as an early season honey plant.
Rounding out its usefulness in this guild, the roots of harvested agarita can be used to make a yellow dye which was popular with Native Americans and early settlers. Agarita also has many medicinal qualities. The berries are useful for making a tea to treat mouth sores and sore throats. The flowers can be used to prevent infection in fresh wounds. The root is used as a laxative, a fever reducer, and an eye wash (4).
Prickly Pears as a Perennial Food Source
Prickly pears are cacti in the genus Opuntia, easily identifiable by their flat, oval-shaped pads (cladodes). The USDA classifies at least 71 species in the US, and many more exist in Central and South America. Prickly pears are known to hybridize in nature, making identification notoriously difficult. The pads and fruit of all opuntia are edible. The most common culinary variety is the Opuntia ficus-indica – the Indian fig. Like most prickly pears, the growing requirements for the Indian fig are simple. It makes due with very little water, in any well-drained soil. This plant spreads so readily in dry conditions that it is has naturalized around the world and is considered invasive in parts of the Mediterranean, Africa, and Australia. It needs plenty of sunlight, but fares just fine in along the outer edges of a mesquite canopy.
The pads and the fruit are edible, though care must be taken to ensure that none of the spines are eaten. Spineless varieties are available to make preparation easier. These varieties are “spineless” in the same sense that seedless watermelons are “seedless.” The spines are fewer and smaller, but the plant must be prepared carefully to ensure that no spines are ingested. In Mexican cuisine, the pads – or nopales – are often diced or cut into long slices, and prepared fresh as a salad called nopalitos. The dietary fiber of opuntia pads is reputed to be especially beneficial, and is widely marketed as a health supplement. After the cactus flowers, sweet fruits are left behind, called tunas. The tunas turn red as they ripen, and when ripe are a sweet treat that can be eaten fresh, used as a garnish, or used in any number of deserts, candies, and drinks. There are countless recipes and variations for the pads and the fruits – too many to list here.
Prickly pears are increasingly grown as a fodder crop for cattle and other livestock. They require much less water per kilogram of dry fodder than most other fodder plants. Luther Burbank selected nutritious, spineless opuntias for this purpose – and descendants of his selections are used widely today as drought-resistant fodder sources in South Africa and Namibia (5).
Ripe opuntia tunas can be juiced to make a red dye or fermented to make a tan color. Opuntia also boast many medicinal uses. The flowers of Indian fig are used as an astringent, a diuretic, and to treat irritable bowel syndrome. The pads are used as an anti-inflammatory and as an anti-infective agent (6).
The Edible Common Mallow
Everything you need to know about the growing conditions for this perennial food source is revealed by its botanical name, Malva neglecta. Common mallow grows naturally throughout the US without supplemental water or care, including in the arid southwest.
Common mallow doesn’t taste like much, but its leaves are rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals. The young leaves, flowers, green fruits (called peas), and ripened seeds are edible. Tender leaves can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, and mallow is often dried and added to smoothies for its nutritional value.
The mucilage from its peas is used as a thickening agent for soups, stews, gumbo, and confections including whipped cream, meringue, and marshmallows (7). Mallow is also good fodder for your livestock. As a medicinal, mallow is useful as an antibacterial, an anti-inflammatory, an astringent, a diuretic, an expectorant, and a laxative (8).
Purslane as an Edible Groundcover in the Desert Food Forest
As a groundcover, no edible is better suited to the intense heat of southwestern summers than purslane (Portulaca oleracea). This small succulent grows throughout the US as an annual, but some species can overwinter in warmer climates.
Purslane packs high levels of vitamin C, enzymes, and omega-3 fatty acids, and it can be stored for months after harvesting by fermentation. One cup of purslane can contain 400 milligrams of omega-3 fatty acids, more than fish and far safer to eat. A study at the University of Texas at San Antonio found purslane to contain 10 to 20 times more of the antioxidant melatonin than any other fruit or vegetable their lab tested (8). Add to this the fact that purslane will grow on its own in dry climates in full sun to part shade, with no special care, and you have the perfect edible groundcover. In addition to providing a zesty addition in your fresh salads, purslane makes great fodder for chickens and larger livestock.
Choose Your Own Adventure
These plants are a framework for a perennial food guild in the arid southwest. Be creative, and look around your area for other useful and edible plants that can thrive in hot, dry conditions. You might consider using mullein, yuccas, and grapevines to diversify the guild and to add beauty to its appearance.
Even these tough native and well-adapted plants require a little care to get through the punishing summer season, especially during extended periods of drought. You can keep additional watering to a minimum by harvesting as much rainwater as possible, using effective earthworks like berms and swales, mulching well, and making use of household greywater. Methods like hugelkultur and sunken beds can also help you to stretch your water budget.
Just keep an eye on your plants, especially when they’re young, and give them a little extra water if they’re suffering. Depending on your conditions, you might be able to work in some thirstier plants that require more water than those listed above. And, as you build your soil, more and more plants will be likely to thrive underneath the mesquite tree that you used to anchor this desert guild. With some time, you just might build a desert food forest to rival any that you’ve seen in Florida or Oregon.
Reprinted with permission from Permaculture Design Magazine, Volume #99, Spring 2016
1. Niethammer, Carolyn. American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest. Lincoln: Bison Books, 1999. Print.
3. Harelik, Tiffany. The Big Bend Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of West Texas. Charleston: American Palate, 2014. Print.
4. Heatherley, Ana Nez. Healing Plants: A Medicinal Guide to Native North American Plants and Herbs. Guilford: The Lyons Press, 1998. Print.
5. Mondragón-Jacobo, Candelario and Pérez-González, Salvador. Cactus (Opuntia spp.) as Forage. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2001. Print.
6. Khare, C.P. Indian Medicinal Plants: An Illustrated Dictionary. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC, 2007. Print.
7. Kallas, John. Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate. Layton: Gibbs Smith, 2010. Print.
8. Blair, Katrina. The Wild Wisdom of Weeds: 13 Essential Plants for Human Survival. White River Junction: Chelsea Green, 2014. Print.
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