T-minus just a few days before we leave on our 10 day desert trip and the madness is in full swing around here. I am never again going away on such a long trip at the height of planting season. Lesson learned. Still, I figure I will stop fussing and fretting about my own garden once I am out there in that giant desert garden with so many amazing plants and landscapes surrounding me.
While I have a heightened interest in desert plants in general and probably know more than the average person visiting the American Southwest for the first time, I also know from other trips that stepping into that landscape is going to feel a bit like walking on the moon with alien lifeforms aplenty.
About a month ago I started to prepare by purchasing books related to the plant life of the Southwest. I tried to get a good general plant identification book, but alas the one I wanted, A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona by Anne Orth Epple, was not available. I am hoping to pick up a copy somewhere on the trip. Perhaps the gift shop at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix will have a copy in stock. We specifically decided to make this public garden our first stop of the trip so that we’d have a chance to see Sonoran desert plants in an educational context. After all, I don’t expect to see conveniently located name tags once we’re out in the middle of nowhere!
Gathering the Desert
I’ll begin with my favourite book of the bunch that I purchased. Gathering the Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan turned out to be an excellent read and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in plants period, but specifically if you are curious about ethnobotany (the relationships between plants and people), desert edibles, or desert herbal medicines. The book is divided into chapters that each tell the story of plants including amaranth, creosote, agave, tepary beans, and mesquite (to name a few) that are useful to the indigenous peoples of the region. Each story includes both botanical and historical/cultural information about the plant as well as including a contemporary angle that locates each plant’s relationship with present day indigenous people. I’ve picked up a lot of books like this in the past and while they promised to be interesting, the writing was often dry and dull. This book, on the other hand, is exceptionally well written — I couldn’t put it down and actually carried it around in my bag so I could steal moments while riding the bus or sitting in a cafe. My favourite chapter is the one on Sandfood (Pholisma sonorae), a very strange and endangered plant that I had never heard of but am now obsessed with seeing in the wild. It is a parasitic plant that attaches itself to the roots of neighbouring bushes and shrubs, with a large underground stem that when roasted is purported to taste like sweet potato. The plant grows in exceptionally sandy areas and all that appears above the ground is a mushroom-like thing that reminds me of lithops or other South African stone plants. Reading the chapter lead me to look up the locations indicated and it turns out that we would be passing right through the area. I never would have known had I not picked up this book!
In a strange full-circle coincidence I discovered after I finished the book that the author is a cofounder of Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit native seeds conservation organization based in Tucson whose store I am looking forward to visiting.
Sonoran Desert Food Plants
Another book that I will be taking with me on the trip is a small 52-page guidebook called Sonoran Desert Food Plants: Edible Uses for the Desert’s Wild Bounty by Charles W. Kane. While I don’t intend to do any harvesting or gathering, I plan to bring the book along for the heck of it, just to see if I can ID anything with food usage. It’s not a large book, but each plant page includes a good photograph (some also include a second closeup) to aid in accurate identification, as well as information about the plant’s range, edible and medicinal uses and an indication of how edible or useful it is.
I bought a second book by the same author that I will not be bringing on the trip. Medicinal Plants of the American Southwest is a very thorough guide to collecting and using wild plants with medicinal benefits. However, with few images or photographs save a selection of colour plates in the centre of the book, it is a very poor identification guide and is best suited to practiced or aspiring herbalists who are experienced in I.Ding these plants or who have several other guidebooks to help fill in the gaps.
A Passion for Cactus
My friend Uli brought over this little book on Sunday afternoon because she thought I might like it for the trip. Coming in at 63 pages it’s a cute little gift-style book that makes a good introduction to desert cacti. It packs in a surprising amount of useful information including a small edible cactus section that includes recipes. The section I found most interesting is on the Saguaro Festival celebrated by the Tohono O’odham (or Papago) peoples in late July. Apparently, part of the celebration involves collecting and making saguaro cactus wine. After three days, the group partakes in the wine in honour of the coming rains.
Have you read any books on desert plants that you would suggest?