January 15, 2005
Some see the Sonoran Desert as a harsh wasteland, but Paul "Crash" Marusich sees it as a garden of nutritional and medicinal wonder. And, as an Arizona native, the interpretive ranger has exactly one hour to make visitors to McDowell Mountain Regional Park see it his way.
"I hope people walk away knowing the desert, in its natural state, will provide for them," Marusich says.
The edible plant tour, held roughly twice a month, begins at the park’s Nursery Tank Trailhead and attracts first- and many-timers alike. Bob and Sue Chaffin fit into the latter category.
"We learn something every time we go on one of these walks," Sue says. She and Bob spend five months in Arizona, seven in Michigan.
With 70 percent of the Sonoran Desert’s 2,500 plants falling into the edible category, Marusich has his work cut out for him, paring down his dialogue to cover just 10 botanicals.
"When I get to 10, somebody tell me," Marusich says to the small group gathered.
While McDowell Mountain Park is 21,100 acres, less than half a mile is covered on this wheelchair-friendly tour. "I think one of the reasons it is so popular is the ease of the trail," Marusich says. No fitness level is required.
Also, "edible desert plants are an interesting subject," he says. Many people are surprised to learn that much of what they see can be ingested. The secret is knowing how to prepare it. While desert plants are accessible year-around, April, May and June is when the plants give forth food. But park visitors can find it uncomfortably hot then.
Right now conditions are good, as the desert has greened with rain. Before stepping onto the path, Marusich imparts some general knowledge on desert plants. "If it does not stick to you, it’s probably not out here," he says. Also, if you think you know what something tastes like, you are probably right.
"Buckhorn cholla," Marusich says, pointing to a plant a few feet off the path. The most basic of desert foods, buckhorn cholla flowers are safe to eat, as are the plant’s buds. But those buds need to be rolled in hot ash to burn off the micro needles. "They are a tremendous source of calcium," Marusich says. He adds that American Indians dried the buds to preserve them for offseason use.
"The Sonoran Desert is the only place where you will see a saguaro," Marusich says as he moves down the path. The Tohono O’odham use this cactus’ life cycle as a calendar and its fruit in jams, jellies, candies and ceremonial wine.
"The ocotillo is both food and medicine," Marusich says. There are 17 different types of ocotillo, and its uses surprise most visitors. A punchlike drink can be made from the plant, as well as a tea that is used treating enlarged prostates.
"From the creosote comes 52 separate volatile oils and resins," Marusich says of a shrub also known as "greasewood." The desert’s No. 1 medicinal plant, creosote is perhaps most recognized by its fragrance — a distinct and pungent aroma most detectable after rain.
"The purple berry of the grey thorn is edible." Marusich motions to another plant. The bean of the female species is particularly high in protein. Oil extracted from grey thorn has replaced the use of sperm whale oil as a base in perfumes. The plant’s white powder, found on leaves during wet years, can be used as a mild topical painkiller.
"A lot of people think the barrel cactus always leans south and can be used like a compass," Marusich says.
Nor can water be extracted from the plant. "There is no water there that is usable," Marusich says.
The prickly pear, with its tasty fruit, is one of the most recognizable plants of the desert. But it is not the fruit for which it is often sought out but its insect infestation. Cochineal, a bright red dye masked as a white fungus, is still used in Europe as a safe red food coloring.
"Paloverde, ironwood and mesquite are the big three legumes," Marusich says. A paloverde gives 2 to 12 pounds of beans annually with the green pods tasting something like snow peas. Dried for later use by American Indians, the pods are used to make a gruel. Ironwood pods can be roasted and eaten like peanuts. Mesquite beans can also be ground into a nutritious flour. High in protein, mesquite flour makes a delicious bread.