Monthly Archives: March 2014


Savor Sister Jacqueline Soule posting today.

Chinchweed or limoncillo is known to scientists as Pectis papposa, a member of the Compositae family, now called the Asteraceae, and arguably the largest plant family out there.  If you aren’t “into” the Compositae, it is generally considered just another one of those DYC’s (Dratted Yellow Compositae).  (Well, we scientists don’t say “dratted” but we don’t want the parental controls to censor this blog.)


Pectis papposa is just a “DYC” to some, but it can be so much more!

This sprightly summer blooming annual is found across the desert Southwest from New Mexico to California and northern Mexico (in the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts) at elevations below 6000 feet.  With surprising promptness after the first summer rain, the desert floor is carpeted with the small yet bright yellow flowers – DYC’s.



A carpet of Pectis papposa. Too lovely to trod upon!


Hopi, Zuni, and Havasupai all use the chinchweed plant as a condiment, especially to flavor meat.  There are also references to its use as a fresh green and potherb.  In Mexican markets, bundles of fresh or dried plants are sold as limoncillo and used as a culinary spice, generally to flavor meat. There are also references to its use as a dye plant.


The leaves of limoncillo are dotted with a number of glands filled with flavorful oils.

Planting and Care.
Sow seeds of this charming summer annual anywhere in your yard you wish them.  Plants look especially lovely in a cactus garden, and appear to prefer well drained soil.  Since chinchweed is a summer annual, sow in the warmer months, from April onward.  Ideally have the seeds in the soil prior to the first monsoon rain, generally around San Juan’s Day or summer solstice.   This may be tough as seeds are generally not available in seed catalogs.  You may have to wild collect some of the herb this year, and while you are at it, collect seeds for your own next year.  Once you have some limoncillo your yard it seems to cheerfully find new places to tuck itself, including in areas of reflected light, which is often a tough site for plants to thrive in.



These tiny plants will find their way into unexplored corners of you yard. A weed only by common name, the seed is excellent food for native birds.


Harvesting and Use.
As a culinary spice, chinchweed may be used fresh or dried.  Simply chop up the fresh material or crumble the dried and sprinkle on meat.  If you like lemony chicken, then limoncillo is a great local herb to use!  Fresh cinchweed greens add a nice zing to stir fry, but I have not tried them cooked alone as a potherb (yet).  This will be part of my New Years resolution to grow and use all of the native plants in my Father Kino’s Herbs book (More on this at 30 minutes in on America’s Web Radio –  For dye, pluck the flower heads off and use them fresh or dried.  I could not find if there was a specific mordant.


Harvest the flower heads for dye and the leaves together with the flowers for culinary use.

Now I have thought of a new way to think of this DYC – it’s a Delightfully Yummy Compositae!  And I hope you will consider some for your yard.


DYC stands for Delightfully Yummy Composite with Darling Yellow Crowns!

 [For another species of DYC flowering now, and some of its uses, please visit my blog on Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens –]

The information presented here is a sample of what appears in my book Father Kino’s Herbs, Growing and Using Them Today (Tierra del Sol Press, 2011).  Available through  Free public lectures on growing and using our wonderful native plants, at a number of branches of the Pima County Library.

Photos copyright free and courtesy of Wikimedia except where noted.  Article © 2014, Jacqueline Soule.  All rights reserved. I have received many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you are free to use a very short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. My photos may not be used.  Please use the contact me if you have any questions. JAS avatar

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Food Security in the Desert

A small water-harvesting tank from Home Depot.

A small water-harvesting tank from Home Depot.

Carolyn here. This is an extra mid-week post regarding not only harvesting food in the desert, but growing it as well.  The issue, of course, is water.  Tucson community activist Tres English is prodding Tucsonans to look to their food future and consider how we can become secure by growing more of our own food. A hundred years ago this would not be a novel idea but family business as usual.  We are moving in the right direction as a communty. Tucson already has 44 community gardens, thousands of fruit trees,  and over 100 experimental aquaponics systems. Nearby farms are keeping are farmers’ markets well stocked. But still, the vast majority of  our food is imported from far away.

Because I get deep satisfaction from gardening, my husband and I have installed three rain water tanks on our property. In a really good rain, I should be able to catch about a thousand gallons. I have watered most of my winter veggies this year with rain water from our first tank.  Unfortunately, it hasn’t rained much since we installed the last two tanks, but when (if??) it does rain, I should be able to take care of the flowers as well, leaving only the trees  and the house on city water.

Our biggest tank drains water from roof of guest house and provided water for my winter vegetable garden.

Our biggest tank drains water from roof of guest house and provided water for my winter vegetable garden.

We need to pull more people into growing their own food. Whether you catch the rain in big tanks, 55 gallon drums, or 5 gallon paint buckets (like I did until recently), you can water your garden at least partially with rain water. You can read what Tres has put together on his website, but here are some of the points:

We have vast, untapped resources

Every square foot of Tucson receives an average of over 6.5 gallons of rain every year (that’s before Global Climate Change), or about 175 million gallons per square mile.  That’s 80,000 gallons of harvestable rain per person.

We have about 40 square miles of rooftops in metro Tucson and over 80 square miles of paving. If we harvest (and use) water very near where it falls, we could potentially have over 50,000 acre-feet of “new” water that isn’t currently being used for any productive purpose.

When combined with directly used rain and net natural recharge from mountain fronts and river beds, our maximum potential renewable, harvestable, local water supply is close to 260,000 acre-feet per year — compared to 192,000 AF used by all municipalities.

Tres English says: “We are not alone in developing local food systems, so we don’t have to start from scratch.  What are some of the most innovative approaches in the world to creating all elements of a complete food system?  What will it take adapt them for our needs?”  These are the answers he will seek but he needs a little money to do it.  To that end, he has set up a crowd-funding site at    Or you can also donate on the website. If you want to see all Tucsonans have access to fresh, local food, go to the site and chip in a few bucks.


Cholla Bud Workshops.

If you enjoyed Martha Burgess’s post on cholla harvesting, perhaps you’d like to go gathering with her.  Sign up through Native Seeds SEARCH. It’s been unseasonably warm here in Tucson, and the chollas are budding a bit early.  Choose one of two dates: Saturday, April 12 and Friday, April 25 8 – 11 am $30 – NS/S Members $40 – Non-members

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How Nopales Become Nopalitos

Pick prickly pear pads when they are the size of your hand.

Pick new prickly pear pads in the spring when they are the size of your hand.

Carolyn Niethammer with you this week. In our last post,  Martha Burgess wrote about how early cholla buds were appearing this year. I have seen pads beginning to form on the native prickly pear, but not yet on my Ficus Indica, the tall Mexican variety.  But they will be out soon, so let’s talk about how to prepare them for use in salads and casseroles.

Scape off the stickers with a serrated steak knife.

Scape off the stickers with a serrated steak knife.

First thing is to don your rubber gloves. Even though these cactus pads don’t have large stickers, they do have the tiny glochids that can be awful to get out of your hands. Then using an old-fashioned steak knife with a serrated edge, go against the grain to scrape off the stickers. Keep a paper towel nearby to clean the knife and keep your working surface clean.

Trim off the edge.

Trim off the edge.

There are an abundance of stickers on the edge of the pad, so just trim it off and discard it.

The nopal becomes nopalitos.

The nopal becomes nopalitos.

At this point you can put the whole, cleaned  nopal on the grill next to  some chicken pieces or pork chops. Or you can chop the pad into smallish pieces. The Chicago restaurant owner, TV star and author Rick Bayless coats the pieces with oil, puts them on a cookie sheet and bakes until done.  You can also do it in a frying pan.  Cook until the color changes to a more olive hue. The slippery substance that is so healthy for your blood will dry up and become less noticeable.

Cook nopalitos until they turn olive colred and loose some of their moisture.

Cook nopalitos until they turn olive colred and loose some of their moisture.

I watched my friend Amy Valdez Schwemm do a nopal cooking demo at the Mercado last year. Her method is a little different. After cleaning the nopal, she cooks it whole and cuts it up later.  If you are cooking in a frying pan, this eliminates having to flip each piece individually.


Amy cooks the pads whole then cuts later.

Amy cooks the pads whole then cuts later.

At this point you can add to a salad (maybe picnic-style potato salad) or a casserole such as this one with lentils from my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.

French Green Lentils with Nopalitos

French Green Lentils with Nopalitos

Although prickly pear is a New World plant, it has spread over the globe. The Spaniards originally took it back to Europe from Mexico. I was fascinated to learn that it has colonized in Ethiopia in a big way.  Some impoverished groups live on the prickly pear fruits for months when they are ripe. But people do not eat the pads there, although they feed them to their livestock.  Here are some photos my friend Seyoum took showing prickly pear and his family in Irob, Ethiopia.

A very large prickly pear plant in Irob, Ethiopia.

A very large prickly pear plant in Irob, Ethiopia.


Preparing nopales for the livestock.

Preparing nopales for the livestock.

All prickly pear pads are edible; it just depends on how much time you want to spend getting the stickers off. I usually wait until the Ficus Indica pads develop. Those with access to a Mexico grocery store can usually find them there, sometimes already cleaned. Once they are cleaned, they tend to deteriorate quickly, so buy just before you want to cook them. The very best tasting prickly pear pads I’ve ever eaten are grown on the foggy slopes of central California by John Dicus at Rivenrock Gardens. You can find him at He will go in the morning and pick you a boxful and it will be on your porch the next day. They are so fresh, they will last for many weeks in the refrigerator. He grows a variety he found in Maya country in Mexico and they are virtually spineless. And delicious!


Excited to try prickly pear?  I give you lots of recipes in The Prickly Pear Cookbook and Cooking the Wild Southwest.  Very helpful for controlling blood sugar and cholesterol.



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They’re here–they’re ready! Cholla buds’ grand opening!

staghorn cholla flower just opening (N.Stahler photo)

staghorn cholla flower just opening (N.Stahler photo)

Tia Marta here with important news—something I was planning to share with you next month but wow here it is—our staghorn cholla cacti flowered yesterday.  That is a herald-horn in the desert for sure—it is cholla bud harvesting time again!

Ever since I was first led into the desert to learn cholla harvesting decades ago now by my Tohono O’odham mentor and teacher, Juanita, I’ve looked forward to this signal and to our ritual, with hope for the return of desert-food-season, and with gladness —not to mention with a little trepidation for the hazards of the business.  But in all the years of practicing our ritual harvest I’ve never seen the buds come on so early.   This is fully a month sooner than the “old normal.”  All through the 1970s,’80s, into the ‘90s, we could predict the cholla harvest to be cranking up about mid-April and ending in the first week in May, a small window of opportunity.  Curiously, the cholla season since the turn of the recent millennium has extended in both directions, beginning earlier and lasting longer into May.  It is as if the chollas are hedging their bets, not knowing where climate change will lead….In spring of 2013 cholla flowers were open by April 2 and I picked my last bud on San Ysidro Day, May 15.  And this year?  Buds were showing before March and the first flowers were open on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17!

traditional saguaro rib tongs for cholla bud harvest (MABurgess photo)

traditional saguaro rib tongs for cholla bud harvest (MABurgess photo)

These plants are sensing subtle climate signals to which we also should attune ourselves.  While we have been basking in this desert’s “winter without a winter,” the chollas have been storing energy and the scant rainwater that fell, in prep for an early show.  What this all means for its pollinators, for spiders, ants, packrats, birds—the whole food chain and web of life here in the Arizona Uplands of the Sonoran Desert—remains to be seen.

staghorn cholla bud showing true leaves and spines at aereole (JRMondt photo)

staghorn cholla bud showing true leaves and spines at aereole (JRMondt photo)

So, time to grab your hat, collecting tongs, bucket (and don your non-floppy long sleeves, pants, tough boots) and head for the nearest cholla-covered hills for the harvest.   As Juanita taught, begin your cholla harvesting expedition with respect and a touch of humility.  This land can feed us from its prickly productivity if we shed the gimme-gimme attitude of contemporary culture and enter into it mindfully.

first de-spining of cholla buds (MABurgess photo)

first de-spining of cholla buds (MABurgess photo)

All cacti are protected by law in Arizona.  However, cactus buds or fruits, harvested with care and frugality, and with the landowner’s permission, is the only part of the cactus which is fair game.  Our Native Plant Law is most enlightened and far-thinking.  One might go so far as to call it sustainable.  Imagine Arizona legislators realizing that our cacti and succulents are important to us!  (That decision thankfully happened in an era of greater wisdom and compassion.)  While cacti and other succulents appear so tough, and really can withstand extremes of heat and dryness, they are also vulnerable to many forms of human disturbance, to invasive grasses, fire, fungal attacks where tissue has been damaged, insect and rodent infestations.  When native cacti or succulents are scraped from desert soil, we are left with aggressive, blah and boring, foreign grasses and weeds.  The Sonoran Desert natives we know and love can’t easily re-vegetate.

For best harvesting, Juanita would seek out stands of the gangly staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) growing plentifully over the foothills of the Tucson Mountains, Catalinas and Rincons.   They are found on rocky upslopes down to lower rocky ground.  Staghorn is the one with the sensational variety of colors—each plant a different brilliant phase of lemon yellows, oranges, rust, reds, wine, or maroon.   While you  are searching out unopened buds for collecting, give yourself a chance to savor the opened cholla flowers up close.  Their petals appear to be made of shiny silk or satin with sparkling surfaces that leave you (and their insect pollinators) visually jazzed, maybe momentarily breathless with their beauty.  You might see a tiny beetle or solitary bee bumbling about in a forest of stamens in search of the nectar the cactus pays them for their pollination services.  We aren’t the only ones out harvesting.

stamen strands in staghorn cholla flower (B.Sandlin photo)

stamen strands in staghorn cholla flower (B.Sandlin photo)

Juanita would jump at the chance to find a stand of pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia arbuscula, think arbusto in Spanish, referring to its shrub-like shape) because wee’pah-noy (as she called it in Tohono O’odham neok) has the largest bud and the fewest spines of all the chollas she sought, but it also is the most infrequently found.  Pencil cholla tends to grow in a few clustered stands in flatter places, like the upper terrace of the Santa Cruz near Green Valley or lower bajadas in Avra Valley.

The buckhorn cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthacarpa meaning spiny-fruited), was Juanita’s least favorite because, despite its large delectable bud, the spines at every aereole on the buds are tough and difficult to remove, making preparation for eating a real ordeal.  If left to mature into fruit, they still have a spiny cover.

cane cholla flowers, buds, and last year's yellow fruits (MABurgess photo)

cane cholla flowers, buds, and last year’s yellow fruits (MABurgess photo)

Another cholla found in higher desert into the grasslands, which Juanita occasionally collected, is cane cholla (Cylindropuntia spinosior)—the one with perky right-angle branches off a single trunk, which sag in winter frost-hardiness.  They have recognizable round yellow fruits which may remain on the branch-tips all year.  Their bud is a fat round, easily de-spined joy to harvest, and their open flower is a brilliant magenta.

In a neat video by cinematographer Vanda Gerhardt  (link on my website, and in my recent Edible Baja Arizona article “A Budding Meal” (Vol. 5, pp122-24, ), I have described how Juanita would initially brush off spines while on the plant, harvest one bud at a time always leaving some for other creatures and for the plants themselves, carry them back home in her bucket to de-spine fully in a wire mesh screen-box with an old broom.

red cholla buds de-spined ready for cooking (MABurgess photo)

red cholla buds de-spined ready for cooking (MABurgess photo)

yellow staghorn buds in the cook pot (MABurgess photo)

yellow staghorn buds in the cook pot (MABurgess photo)

After a 15 or 20-minute boiling, she would discard the water, and voila, there were the delicious buds, tangy and tasty, ready to eat, or to stirfry with chiles and garlic, to pickle, or dry.  Drying is an ordeal and takes a full week in dry weather to become stone-hard and safely storable, but it makes them available year round.  If you have freezer space, freezing in its own juice is a perfect way to preserve them for the rest of the year’s enjoyment.

When it comes to nutrition, cholla is up there with the super-foods, with highest measures of available calcium and complex carbs–plus flavor like a tangy artichoke.  It can help strengthen bones, balance blood sugar, remove cholesterol, and provide sustained energy—wow what more do we need?

Janos’ Downtown Kitchen has created a stupendous cholla en escabeche, and native foods writer Carolyn Niethammer in Cooking the Wild Southwest (UA Press, 2011) teaches how to use cholla as the primo ingredient in her Cholla-Pasta-Primavera.  For a gourmet treat, try my cholla buds in mole sauce recipe, made easily with Amy Valdes Schwemm’s Mano y Metate mole powders (

Botones de Cholla en Mole Pipian Rojo 

2 cups fully cooked cholla buds

2-3 Tbsp organic olive oil

2-3 tsp Mano y Metate Pipian Rojo Mole powder

1 Tbsp minced organic garlic

1-1 ½ cups organic chicken broth or vegetable broth

Sautee mole powder in hot olive oil about 1 minute; quickly add minced garlic and stir-fry; slowly stir in 1 cup or more broth, extending it into a sauce of desired consistency as it re-thickens.  Add cooked cholla buds to the sauce.  Serving suggestion:  serve hot with corn tortillas and heirloom beans.  Serves 4.

If you want to try someone else’s harvest, try the Tohono O’odham Community Action’s ( ) Desert Rain Café in Sells, Arizona, serving a mouthwatering cholla picadillo salad worth the trip out for lunch.  

For more of my favorite ideas for fabulous cholla dishes and hors d’oeuvres, check out   And for my detailed instructions on reconstituting dried cholla buds you can download from the same website.  Dried cholla buds will be available for purchase from Native Seeds/SEARCH store (3061 N Campbell, Tucson) and web-store ( seasonally after April.

Happy harvesting!

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On Cows and the Sweetness of Milk (Dulce de Leche)


Tia Linda:  It is Springtime and we are preparing for our spring roundup.  At a roundup we move all cattle into the corrals, eye each animal, and tend to any that need tending. We  talk about pasture and how to work with “the conditions”. Climate and weather are huge topics of conversation, because when you ranch, you first and foremost raise grass and pasture.  After that, you can raise animals.


Here a mother cow nurses two calves, one her own, one an orphan.

During roundup we have a few cows set in one area for milking.  All milking is done my hand.  It is both a reverent and practical act to milk an animal.  And one you need to be completely present to, as you are working with big animals with big hoofs who are shifting their weight here and there, while you balance on the balls of your feet, as you grip a cold metal pail between your knees. Working warm moist teats, the humid smell of fresh milk flows, the sounds of the warm liquid hits the metal of the pail and then softens as the pail fills.  Most milking happens right before dawn, so the stars are still above, the air is cool, bats are still out hunting insects. As they fly by, I can feel their batwing air currents on my face. The metal pail, initially cold from the morning air, warms as it fills.




We milk some “Vacas de Leche” because they have great udders. Others because they need a bit of “gentle-ing”. Milking a cow can be just as much about a process as a product. You are teaching her – inviting her –  to trust you, and every morning as you work with her, the hope is that she accepts your invitation.

To the ancient Celts the beginning of spring was called Imbolic, from the old words for “ewes milk” or “in the belly” as pregnant sheep began to lactate.  I love that this ritual is rooted in hoofed animals and milk. I feel a kind of  archetypal resonance with lactating animals.   Female animals.  In Anne Baring’s and Jules Cashford’s scholarly book,  The Myth of the Goddess, they write “there was (a) tradition,… in which the Primeval Waters and the High God (was) feminine, and the heavenly ocean was imagined as a ‘great flood’, which was manifest in the form of a great cow nourishing the world with her rain-milk, an image familiar from the Neolithic.” (P252) Isis and Hathor are just two Goddesses that the authors reference, that embody the cow as cosmic mother.


Photo Above: This painting on papyrus is from 1000BC shows Hathor; stars of the night on her. You can find this and other ancient Cow as Cosmic Mother representations, in the book cited above. This photo is on the internet.

The image of the cosmic mother as cow is not one most in people modern life have been exposed to.  Nourishment happens on multiple levels, and  we see that pasture based animals’ “life giving” energies manifest in the  nutritional content of milk.  Their milk differs greatly from cows whose lives are spent in the mainstream, industrial food system. In her book,  The Grassfed Gourmet, ,  Shannon Hayes’s  writes: “…  milk from grass-fed animals offers exceptional health benefits, due in large part to the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids and the high levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). As a result of their pasture based diet, the milk from grass fed cows is naturally high in vitamins A and E and rich in beta-carotene, which contributes to its characteristic buttery color.” She goes on to cite “recent research (that has) uncovered significant findings pointing to the cancer-fighting properties of grass-fed dairy products. A recent Finnish study … concludes that a diet composed of CLA-rich foods, particularly cheese, may protect against breast cancer in post menopausal women.” (see p219)

Just like flowers for honey, grapes for wine, and cactus (liquors) for your margarita, milk directly reflects the land on which the animals are raised. The flavor and texture of milk depends upon the condition of the grasses, and forage, and are affected by  whether or not we  received summer and/or winter rains.

Feeding hard working folks nourishing foods is important during the long “up before sunset -working past dark days” of a cattle roundup. Sweets make it all the sweeter. And one sweet is made with a ranch ingredient: Milk.

RECIPE: Dulce de Leche   (Adapted a tad from Marilyn Noble’s, Southwest Comfort Food)


2 quarts whole cows milk (pasture raised if you can find it)

3 cups sugar (i had good success with organic cane sugar; honey didn’t work texture   wise, but it tastes OK)

1 vanilla bean

½ teaspoon baking soda

(Note: the goat milk option is called Cajeta. For a vegan option: try coconut milk.)


In a large saucepan, stir together the milk, sugar, and vanilla bean – and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add the baking soda and stir. Reduce heat to low and continue to barely simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour. Remove the Vanilla bean and continue to simmer for another few hours until the liquid is a golden brown and thickened and reduced to about 2 cups.


I love eating this simple “sweet”  by the spoonful.  If you have never eaten Dulce de Leche, try it this way first, without any other flavors or on top of any other foods. The flavor and texture are so pure it is as if Life is revealing one of Her simpler riches to you, saying “Ahhhh, you thought it had to be complicated …and all along it was right here, in this very spoon.”

In Sonora, it is eaten on tortillas, cookies, bread, and  stirred into in Atole de Pechita (a Mesquite drink).  I like in on top of mesquite pancakes, mesquite cookies, ice cream, or fresh fruit.

Note: picking up on the theme of nourishment coming in many forms ….  the Aroma that wafts through the kitchen while the milk and sugar are reducing is amazing. It is worth making JUST for the pleasure of inhaling such sweetness.

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