Edible Plants of the Desert

JTNP Desert Institute Instructor,

William “Willie” Pink

Pala Band of Luiseno Native Americans

23-24 October 2010


Photographs from Class

About 35 edible plants and another 125 which have utilitarian uses including the following (those tasted are marked with asterisk): 


1)      Agave, fibers make cordage, sandals

2)      Black oak*, acorns, cracked open, ground, must leach them (once per hour, 8-12 times). Thick porridge.

3)      Blue corn*, grind into meal

4)      Buckwheat,

5)      California Fan Palm, native dates, high sugar, lots of fruit

6)      California Rose, hips for tea.  Stem for arrow shafts

7)      Cattail, white power made into mashed potato like dish

8)      Chia*, mint family; one plant yields about one teaspoon of seeds (energy boost) after pan roasting

9)      Cholla, roasted and applied to wounds

10)  Datura, (Jimson or Jamestown weed), tea supposedly killed 50 soldiers in colony—alternatively, made them sick for 11 days; boy’s initiation ceremony (once in a lifetime)

11)  Deer Grass, baskets

12)  Desert trumpet, the stem is used for tobacco pipe

13)  Dogbane, poisonous, but leaves or hemp for cordage

14)  Elderberry, the most sacred plant because of its widespread utility

15)  Fry bread,* made the dough from 5 pounds of self-rising flour, one can of evaporated milk in with 5 cups of water, mix and kneaded together; overnight; oil and fry it up, turning until golden brown

16)  Holyleaf Cherry*, flesh is edible; seeds have to cracked, ground, and then be roasted; tannin is soluble

17)  Honey mesquite*, yellow pods are sweet “honey”-like

18)  Juniper

19)  Juncus, mats and baskets

20)  Manzanita, dry the berries

21)  Mariposa Lily, the bulbs are edible

22)  Milkweed, fiber and chewing gum

23)  Miner’s lettuce (devil’s basket), eaten as is or washed

24)  Mormon tea, 5 sticks in a cup of boiling water; good for kidneys, occasionally

25)  Mule Fat (smells like fat); arrow shafts

26)  Native tobacco, long tubular flower

27)  Nolina, cordage

28)  Prickly Pear Cactus, pad and fruit

29)  Red Maid, black seeds

30)  Soap Lily

31)  Sumac* (sour berry), nibbled the berry, “lemony”

32)  Thistle sage, seeds

33)  Tree Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), in willow/cottonwoods; fried

34)  White sage, cut into bundles, dried, burns as purification ritual

35)  Wild Hyacinth or Wild dick (Indian potato), bulb is edible

36)  Wild Onion

37)  Yerba Mansa, leaves and roots. Tea

38)  Yucca*, immature makes good fiber (no way needle could be used) as well as soap



Philosophical statements: That human and plants have to interact.  Why are some plants dying or not thriving?  Because they know humans and “miss” the interaction. True wilderness is not a good idea.  For example, NAs collected wood from under trees; if not done, then cataclysmic fire will kill the trees. He noted that the park is allowing some NA’s to come into the park to harvest.  Some might call this indigenous resource management.  If you give it away before death, fine, but otherwise it will be buried with you.  Burial of the item, upside down, means that a person is buried below.


Political views:  Feinstein established JTNP as a gold bank, mining will be allowed in future; the East Mojave National Scenic Area location for [seventeen] rare earth elements, but small miners were pushed out and big corporations will be allowed to mine it in the future. 


Suggested books:  Although the instructor was not enthusiastic about book-learning because he believes that that knowledge does not have priority over hands-on, experiential learning:



1)      M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources (University of California Press, 2006).


2)      Katherine Siva Saubel and Lowell John Bean. Temalpakh (From the Earth): Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants (Banning, California: Malki Museum, 1972).