Sonoran Medicinal

Gifts from September Gardens–intentional and otherwise

Tia Marta here to share some culinary ideas happening now in Baja Arizona herb gardens, and to extend an invitation to visit el jardinito de hierbas at Tucson’s Mission Garden to experience the herbs in action!

Estafiate--all purpose Artemisia ludoviciana--in the herb plot, Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

Estafiate–all purpose Artemisia ludoviciana–and Mexican arnica beyond (close-up of flower below), in the herb plot, Mission Garden (MABurgess photos)

Heterotheca--Mexican arnica flower (MABurgess photo)

Of all the herbs in our Southwest summer gardens—presently rejoicing in monsoon humidity and in the soppy tail of Hurricane Norbert—I think the most exuberant has gotta be Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil……..

Mrs Burns' Famous Lemon Basil, at Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil, at Mission Garden (MABurgess photo)

In its versatility, Mrs Burns’ lemon basil provides many possibilities for the kitchen and the cosmetic chest, the first being olfactory delight. Brush its foliage lightly with your hands and you get an instant rush of enlivening yet calming lemon bouquet. Like Monarda or lavender, this lemon basil is definitely one to plant in a “moon garden” for nighttime enjoyment, or along a narrow walkway where you have to pleasantly brush up against it, getting a hit en route, always a reminder that life is good.

I wish this blog could be “scratch-and-sniff” so you could sense the sweet lemony aroma of this heirloom right now. Maybe technology can do that for us someday, but meanwhile, find a Native Seeds/SEARCH aficionado who has planted it and get yourself a sprig to sniff.   On any Saturday morning, come visit and whiff this desert-adapted basil at Mission Garden (the living history exhibit at the base of “A”-Mountain created by Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace). There, among Padre Kino’s heirloom fruit trees, in the monsoon Huerta vegetable plot, a group of herbalists known as Tucson Herbalist Collective (usually referred to as THC—like far out, righteous herbs, man, whatever) has planted a patch of traditional Mission-period medicinal and culinary herbs within reach of the fence. Lean over and touch Mrs Burns’ lemon basil for a real treat. At present (mid-September) “her” basil is a mound of dense smallish leaves and is sending up a zillion flower stalks sporting tiny white flowers. High time to snip the tops to encourage more foliage. Snippings can be used to zest a salad, to bedeck a platter of lamb chops, or to dry for a long-lasting potpourri.

Close-up view of Mrs Burns' Famous Lemon Basil flowers and foliage (MAB)

Close-up view of Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil flowers and foliage (MAB)

Mrs Burns’ lemon basil—not your typical, soft, floppy-leafed basil—is bred for desert living, with smaller, sturdier foliage. Yes, it does need water, but it can take the desert’s heat and sun. This heirloom’s history is worthy of note and relating it honors the Burns family. The person who put “Famous” into the name Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil was Dr. Barney T. Burns, one of the founders of the seed conservation organization NativeSeeds/SEARCH and an amazing seed-saver himself, whose recent passing we mourn and whose life we gratefully rejoice in. It was his mother, Janet Burns, transplanted from Canada to Carlsbad, NM, who, with a neighbor over several decades, continued to grow and select surviving, desert-hardy seed in Southwestern heat. Barney contributed her basil seed as one of the first arid heirlooms to become part of the NSS collection. Interestingly, these tiny seeds have since traveled around the globe. One year Johnny’s Seeds picked it up, grew it out for their catalog, and sent NSS a check for $600 in royalties, having profited considerably from its sale.

You can use Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil leaf in many marvelous dishes. Layer fresh leaves with slices of farmers’ market tomatoes and thin slices of feta or fontina cheese and droozle with flavored olive oil. (I like Queen Creek Olive Mill blood-orange.) And OMG—this basil makes phenomenal pesto. Include this lemon basil with roast chicken for the best lemon-chicken ever. Dry it and put it in stuffing. Add a few fresh leaves to salad for a taste surprise. Or, add a sprig to soups to add a tang. You can even bedeck a glass of V-8 or your Bloody Mary with a lemon basil sprig to fancy up your presentation.


Handmade soap with Mrs Burns' Lemon Basil-infused jojoba oil (MABurgess photo)

Handmade soap with Mrs Burns’ Lemon Basil-infused jojoba oil (MABurgess photo)

Once when I enthusiastically grew a 50-foot row of Mrs Burns’ basil, it produced for me bags of dried herb, inspiring some fragrant projects. I distilled the aroma-rich herb to make a gentle hydrosol spray which, I feel, carries medicinal/psychological qualities of soothing, pacifying refreshment. By first infusing this marvelous herb in jojoba oil, I create beauty bars—with Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil as the exfoliant in the soap—available at the NativeSeeds/SEARCH store, the Flor de Mayo booth at St Phillips Farmers Market, or at

In my mass planting of lemon basil, I observed bees going totally ecstatic over the profuse flowers and so wished that I had had bee boxes close-by. If any desert bee-keepers want to try a new gift to their bees and to us consumers of honey, I recommend they plant this one. Can’t think of anything finer than Mrs Burns’ Famous Lemon Basil honey!

Brush leaves of devilsclaw for a cooling sensation (MABurgess)

Brush leaves of devilsclaw for a cooling sensation (MABurgess)

Here in culinarily-exciting Baja Arizona, as we promote the uniqueness of Tucson as an International City of Gastronomy, it is fun to consider another of our unique local food plants, a wild and unlikely weed which pops up with monsoon rains in low places, including at Mission Garden and is respectfully spared there. Known as i:hug by the Tohono O’odham (pronounced eee’hook), devilsclaw or unicorn-plant by Anglos, and Proboscidea spp by taxonomists, ours is not to be confused with the herb devilsclaw of commerce, Harpagophytum procumbens native to South Africa. Our native i:hug (of which there are a few species, some yellow-flowered, some pink) is a weed of many uses.

Tohono O'odham coiled basket by Juanita Ahil with domestic long-clawed i:hug (MABurgess photo)

Tohono O’odham coiled basket by Juanita Ahil with domestic long-clawed i:hug (MABurgess photo)

It is primarily known as the fiber used by Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham, and N’de weavers to create the striking black designs in their coiled basketry. Otis Tufton Mason’s tome Aboriginal American Indian Basketry, first published by Smithsonian Institution in 1904, shows beautiful specimens of unicorn-plant weaving, and mentions its use by many desert people including Panamint basket-makers of Death Valley.

I have a feeling that the devilsclaws that are volunteering now at Mission Garden are the children of plants that have been grown by Native People in that very place along the Santa Cruz for many centuries.

Devilsclaw (Proboscidea) flower close-up (MABurgess photo)

Devilsclaw (Proboscidea) flower close-up (MABurgess photo)

As an ornamental, unicorn-plant or devilsclaw can be a welcome surprise of greenery in late summer into fall, making a mound of large leaves sometimes 2’ high and 3’ wide. Tucked among its spreading fuzzy branches, under velvety maple-leaf-shaped foliage, will appear tubular flowers edged in pink. Should you need a cooling touch on a hot day, just lightly brush one of its big leaves and you are instantly refreshed. The velvety look of devilsclaw foliage is actually one of the plant’s defenses against water-loss. Each leaf is covered with fine hairs. At each hair tip is a gland containing a microscopic bead of moisture. Hair causes wind-drag, slowing evaporation from the leaf surface. What evaporates from the glands acts to cools the leaf—what remains can also cool our skin, should we touch it.

Young, harvestable devilsclaw pods (MABurgess photo)

Young, harvestable devilsclaw pods (MABurgess photo)

Most interesting of all are the foods that our native devilsclaw can provide. After pollination of the flower, a small green curved pod emerges like a curled, fuzzy okra. When young, that is, under about 2 ½” long, and before the pod develops woody tissue inside, these small green unicorns can be steamed as a hot vegetable, stir-fried with onion, green chile or nopalitos, or pickled for a Baja Arizona snack.

Maturing green devilsclaw pods beyond the food stage (MABurgess)

Maturing green devilsclaw pods beyond the food stage (MABurgess)

Tangled wild devilsclaw dry pods ready to split for basketry and seed harvesting (MABurgess)

Tangled wild devilsclaw dry pods ready to split for basketry and seed harvesting (MABurgess)

When the long green pods of devilsclaw ripen, the skin will dry and slough off leaving a tough, black, woody seed-pod that splits with very sharp tips. (Beware how they can grab—they were “designed” to hitch a ride on a desert critter’s hoof or fur and thus spread the seed.) With care, and sometimes the need for pliers, open the pod and out will come little rough-surfaced seeds. If your incisors are accurate, and if you have lots of time to get into meditations on i:hug, you can peel off the rough outer seed skin. Inside is a yummy, oil-rich and fiber-rich seed that looks like an overgrown sesame seed. (In fact, scientists at one point had classified Proboscidea in the same taxonomic family as sesame but it now stands in its own.)

Black seeds of wild devilsclaw from split pod.  White inner seeds delish after peeling (MABurgess photo)

Black seeds of wild devilsclaw from split pod. White inner seeds are delish after peeling. (MABurgess photo)

White-seeded domestic devilsclaw has slightly larger seeds like giant sesames (MABurgess photo)

White-seeded domestic devilsclaw has slightly larger seeds like giant sesames.  Peeled inner seed between fingers is ready to eat. (MABurgess photo)

When I see cutesy figurines of roadrunners or Christmas ornaments made with devilsclaw pods, my first thought is, wow, what a waste of a good treat, but then gladly, I realize that this unique plant produces more than enough fresh pods and mature pods to satisfy all the purposes of Nature or hungry and/or creative humans. Give i:hug a try!

Categories: Beekeeping, Cooking, Edible Landscape Plant, Gardening, Sonoran Crafts, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fermented salsas


fermented salsa,with fresh cilantro and tunas (prickly pear fruit) added before serving

Amy Valdés Schwemm

Amy Valdés Schwemm

Naturally fermenting salsa makes a richer and more complex flavor than simply adding vinegar or lime juice, but it does take a little patience. I love tart salsas and sour foods with a bite. Grandma and Grandpa Schwemm on my dad’s side passed on a tradition of sauerkraut, and my mom’s family loves chile. How could chiles fermented like kraut not be my favorite food?

Fermented salsa is a source of pro-biotic microorganisms, recently rediscovered as essential for the digestive system. Home fermented foods probably provide more active and diverse cultures than what comes in a capsule at great expense.

late summer is chile season at Tucson CSA, Walking J, Santa Cruz Farmers' Market Consignment

late summer is chile season at Tucson CSA, Walking J, Santa Cruz Farmers’ Market Consignment

Chiles for this preparation can be fresh or roasted or even dried. I’ve used everything from dried chiltepines to fresh Big Jims and sweet peppers. Hot, fleshy chiles like Jalapeño, Serrano, Guero, Wenks Yellow Hot, and Sinahuisa are ideal.

deseeding chiles

deseeding chiles

Sometimes I meticulously seed and dice the chiles, sometimes I only cut off the stems and coarsely chop in the food processor.

chiles, onion, garlic and salt

chiles, onion, garlic and salt

I usually add onion, garlic and herbs, as the season and whim direct.

chopping chiles reminds me of Uncle Bob and cousin Doug

chopping chiles reminds me of Uncle Bob and cousin Doug

Add salt to the salsa, 2% of vegetables’ weight. This is roughly 1 teaspoon non-iodized salt per cup of diced vegetables, more or less. Salt slows and directs biological activity to make the food more delicious. Lactobacilli thrive in salty environments where other organisms cannot, and the lactic acid they make further inhibit harmful bacteria. Since this is a condiment, I don’t mind it a little salty. There are enough beneficial bacteria on the fresh produce and in the air, so no starter culture is necessary.

diced chiles

diced chiles

If the chiles are not very fleshy or I want a thinner sauce, I add a little brine made with 2 teaspoons salt per cup of water. Thinning the sauce is a good idea when the chiles are very hot!
Put the salsa in a jar with a weight on top, keeping the pieces of chile submerged in exuded juice or brine. I use a smaller jar as a weight.

pureed jalapenos with  diced multicolor sweet peppers

pureed jalapenos with diced multicolor sweet peppers

Cover the tower with a tea towel to keep out dust and insects, and keep at room temperature.

fermenting chiles can be messy

fermenting chiles can be messy

How long before it’s ready? Test daily in warm weather to see if it is sour enough for your taste. In winter, the process is slower, taking up to a couple weeks. If white mold forms on the surface, skim off the top. It is harmless. If the mold is any color other than white, or below the surface of the liquid, discard the whole batch. Better safe than sorry.
When the salsa is tart and delicious, it can be eaten as is or pureed. For a smooth salsa, it can be strained. Sometimes I add fresh herbs or minced I’itoi onion tops.

pureed salsa with diced I'itoi onion tops

pureed salsa with diced I’itoi onion tops

Store fermented salsa in the refrigerator with an airtight lid.
Chef Molly Beverly from Prescott, Arizona suggested fermenting a sauce from Mano Y Metate Pipian Rojo, so I have some of that going now. I can’t wait to taste it!
elote salsa
For more details about fermenting food, see Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation. For an encouraging primer on safely fermenting food, find Wild Fermentation also by Katz. This is one of my all time favorite cookbooks.

Categories: Cooking, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hearty Jojoba

jojoba green fruit

Green jojoba fruit dangle below the branches, slowly ripening in the desert sun.

posted by Jacqueline A. Soule

If you know how I title most of my blogs, you now have a hint on how to pronounce jojoba – it’s pronounced ho-ho-ba. (The “j” is an “h” sound in Spanish. Which reminds me of the time at the busy health clinic when “Hakalina” did not recognize her name called out by the nurse – but that’s another story.)

Jojoba is the O’odham name for the plant (Simmondsia chinensis) and it came into Spanish via the work of Father Kino. Indeed, Father Kino wrote in his journals about the plant. In Bolton’s 1919 translation of Kino’s journals, Kino writes of a visit with “Pima Indians” (pg. 93) and states that, among other items “. . . they also have bezoar, the medicinal fruit called jojoba, blankets, cotton fabrics, curious and very showy baskets or pitchers, macaws . . . and other conveniences.” Later, Kino describes the fruit as “. . . like the almond, and with a very salutary and effective remedy for different kinds of sickness.”


Jojoba shrubs are either male or female. Here a male shrub offers it’s pollen filled flowers to passing pollinators.

Other common names for the plant include goat nut, deer nut, pignut, wild hazel, quinine nut, coffeeberry, and gray box bush. Although there are references to jojoba as nuts, they are, botanically speaking, a seed.

Jojoba was used in most areas where it is native. The uses varied with tribe. O’odham would crush the seeds to yield an oily paste useful for dry cracked skin, chapped lips, cuts, scrapes, and burns. Seeds were ground and pressed into cakes, and small portions were eaten in moderation as food. Too much jojoba has a laxative action. Seri used seeds as an emergency food, but more commonly as part of a shampoo process. Seeds can also be made into necklaces.


You can purchase pressed jojoba “oil” in many stores. I use the oil in making lotion.


Currently, jojoba is grown commercially for its “oil,” in reality a liquid wax ester, expressed from the seed. This oil is rare in nature. Technically it is an extremely long straight-chain wax ester and not a triglyceride, making jojoba and its derivative jojoba esters more similar to human sebum (body oil) and sperm whale oil than to vegetable oils. Jojoba oil is easily refined to be odorless, colorless and oxidatively stable, and is often used in cosmetics as a moisturizer and as a carrier oil for specialty fragrances. It also has potential use as both a biodiesel fuel for cars and trucks, as well as a biodegradable lubricant. Plantations of jojoba have been established in a number of desert and semi-desert areas.


jojoba plantation in India

Jojoba plantation in one of the semi-arid areas of India.

Jojoba is currently the Sonoran Desert’s second most economically valuable native plant (overshadowed only by the Washingtonia palms used in ornamental horticulture). Plant breeders are doing selective breeding to develop plants that produce more seeds, seeds with higher oil content, and characteristics that will facilitate mechanical harvesting.

A few interesting taxonomic notes. Jojoba is the only species in its plant family, making it quite unique among flowering plants. While there are around 400 monotypic genera, this is the only monotypic flowering plant family. The scientific name, Simmondsia chinensis, is an example of the need for good penmanship. Jojoba does not originate in China! Johann Link, the botanist naming the species, misread Nuttall’s collection label “Calif” as “China.”

Jojoba habit

Jojoba shrubs live well in the desert.

Harvesting and Use.
Jojoba seed on a single bush will ripen slowly over several months. This is one of the traits breeders are seeking to change. Seed is ready to be harvested when the hulls easily fall off and a slight tug releases it into your hand. If it resists, it isn’t ripe.

Store harvested seed in jars or even in the freezer. Grind jojoba seeds in a mortar and pestle for topical use. Alternatively toast the seeds and munch as an occasional snack.

If you have the technology, you can harvest seeds and press them for the oil. Or simply plant them in your native landscape and let the native wildlife use the seed.

Planting and Care will be covered in a future blog.


To learn more about jojoba and other native plants used as herbs, please come to my free presentation “Father Kino’s Native Herbs” at the Main Library on Saturday Sept 13 at 1:30. More at

Some of the information in this article is excerpted from my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15). I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery.

© 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. Please use the contact me if you have any questions. JAS avatar

Categories: Edible Landscape Plant, herbs, Kino herb, medicinal plant, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Desert Lavender

posted by Jacqueline A. Soule

In the days before indoor plumbing, daily showers, and sanitation in general, the clean fresh fragrance of lavender was highly welcome. The name lavender is derived from the Latin “lavare,” meaning to wash. Leaves and flowers have been used for several millennia to do just that, wash. Fragrant baths, hair rinses, to cleanse and treat skin ailments, and, in the past, to help eliminate lice and bedbugs from the household. Tea made from leaves and flowers has been used to treat sleeplessness, restlessness, headache, flatulence, and nervous stomach.














Imagine the delight the Europeans experienced when first encountering this fragrant desert plant in our area. Here they were, after an arduous sea voyage, months of horseback travel along dusty deer trails, riding into progressively odder lands – strange towering saguaros, bulging barrel cactus, pungent creosote bush – to come across a gentle evocative fragrance of their childhood home, the sweet scent of lavender. Some, like Father Kino, may have seen it as a sign from God that their journey was blessed.


lavendula in Hungary













Native Seri use a tea of desert lavender (Hyptis emoryi) to help treat a cold. The Franciscans (who came to the area well after Padre Kino) were known to have harvested and used the leaves and flowers in the sick room, to soothe the ill with the fragrance and to bathe fevered foreheads.

Harvesting and Use.
Harvest stalks of desert lavender as the lower-most flowers open. This gives you buds with optimum fragrance. Dry these, like all herbs, out of direct sunlight. I have used desert lavender in all the same external applications European lavender is used for with no observed ill effects. Here are three ways you can use desert lavender.


Herbal sachets can be made with desert lavender.







Herbal Tisane
“Tisane” is the general term for a herbal tea not consumed as a medicinal tea.
1 tablespoons dried herbs or 2 tablespoons fresh herbs
1 cup boiling water
Pour boiling water over the herbs and steep for 3 to 5 minutes. Strain. Sweeten to taste. Serve warm or chilled. Serves 1.









Floral Water
In the Victorian age, floral waters became popular. Floral waters are made by steeping leaves and flowers in water until it becomes fragrant. The water can then be used in tea, pudding, cake, and pastries. There are a number of commercially available floral waters, such as rose water and orange water (made with orange blossoms).

Lavendula in vodkaelsnaps_(4917058844).jp








Herb Syrup
One of the more famous herb syrups is the mint syrup used in making mint juleps. But herb syrups can be used in many other ways, like topping cakes, ice cream, fruit, pancakes, waffles, or as a base in preparing other foods, like sorbet. In general herb syrups can be used to sweeten anything, including tea. Some herb syrups are used medicinally, like elderberry syrup. Desert lavender syrup makes a nice topping over poached pears, fresh figs or perhaps canned fruit for a quick yet elegant dessert.

1 cup water
3 cups sugar
1 cup chopped fresh herbs
or 1/2 cup crumbled dry herbs

Boil all ingredients together for 10 minutes, or until thickened into a syrup. Strain into a clean glass jar. Store in refrigerator for up to two weeks or preserve by canning.

lavendula syrup over figs








Planting and Care of this Sonoran native will be covered on August 17 in my blog on the Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens site.  The Sonoran butterflies that appreciate this shrub will be discussed in my blog on Beautiful  Wildlife Gardens site on August 5.  I will return to this site to post the links, or follow you can the thread on my Facebook page, Gardening With Soule.

Note:   This topic is covered more extensively in my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15).  If you live in Tucson, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery.


© 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. Please use the contact me if you have any questions. JAS avatar

Categories: Cooking, Edible Landscape Plant, herbs, Kino herb, medicinal plant, Sonoran Crafts, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Sonoran Native | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Marvelous – and Medicinal – Mesquite

The tall stately velvet mesquite tree (Prosopis velutina) is not what most people think of as a herb! But this graceful tree with durable wood was used as a medicinal herb as well as a source of food, tools, and building materials.



The velvet mesquite can grow into a lovely tree especially when given minimal pruning.



Sore throats were treated with a hot tea blend of the clear sap plus inner red bark, while stomach aches were treated with a tea made from the leaves. Toothache was treated by chewing the root. For flagging appetite, a tea made from the leaves was taken before meals. Along with medicinal uses, the bark was used for baskets and fabrics, the wood used for tools, building and firewood, and perhaps most importantly, the pods are a protein-rich food.


The clear mesquite sap (usabi in O’odham) is not only edible but a highly palatable treat, eaten right off the tree. It was often collected and saved, sealed in pottery vessels, and fed the ill (children especially) to help bolster flagging appetites.


resin by t. bresson

Mesquite trees can produce a clear-ish sap, like this cherry sap, that has a sweet flavor. Photo by T. Bresson.


Mesquite seed pods (wihog in O’odham) were an important food source for the natives, and are becoming increasingly important today as research determines how healthful they are for humans. Mesquite pods, and their meal and flour, are considered a “slow release” food due to galactomannin gums which have been found to lower glycemic responses. Their glycemic index is 25 percent, compared to 60 for sweet corn, and 100 for white sugar. I believe some of my “Savor Sisters” will discuss this issue further. Today I am looking at the medicinal uses and how to grow this marvelous plant.


Mesquite pods fresh off the tree are a tasty treat.

Of vital importance to a select number of folks was the use of mesquite against hair loss. This treatment was used by men only, and consisted of the black sap that oozes from mesquite wounds (not the clear sap) mixed with other secret herbs and applied to the scalp. Mesquite herbal soap for “macho” hair is still available in parts of Mexico..



. The dark sap that oozes from mesquite wood is said to be good against hair loss.


Planting and Care.

Our Sonoran Desert native velvet mesquite is slower growing than the grassland mesquite species from Argentina and Chile, but it is a far better choice for a number of reasons. Unlike the non-natives, velvet mesquite is well adapted to our climate, and it feeds the native animals. Leaves serve native butterfly larvae and Gambel’s quail. The pods nourish almost every Sonoran Desert inhabitant, from bunnies and squirrels to coyotes, javalina and humans. The velvet mesquite also has deep tap roots, making it much less likely than the non-natives to blow over in the swirling summer winds that often accompany the monsoon rains.


Since all mesquites can cross, it is now difficult to find pure velvet mesquite. If you go far from town you may get a pure species. Harvest a handful of seed pods, then plant them, pods and all, where you want your tree to grow. Water well and stand back. When about twenty little seedlings have several clusters of true leaves, select the one or two with the most velvety blue leaves. Keep watering but do not fertilize. We started a tree this way and in three short years it grew to a sturdy and robust 20 foot tall tree. In the same time frame, mesquite trees we planted from 15 gallon containers were scarcely any taller than when they were planted –about seven feet tall.


No need to remove the seeds from the pod prior to planting. Just put them into the soil, pod and all and keep evenly moist.


Mesquite are drought toleratant once they are established, but they grow more quickly and larger with a thorough soaking of root zone once every month or two during the warm months.


Do not fertilize mesquite trees or any plant in the pea family. They have a special relationship with bacteria that fix nitrogen out of the soil atmosphere. If you want to encourage more rapid growth of your mesquite, mulch it with an organic mulch, such as the leaves that have dropped off it or composted organic material from a nursery.

prosopis_velutina by MJ Plagens

Mesquite blooms are many flowers on a single stalk, termed a catkin. Photo by M.J. Plagens.To learn more about the native animals that use mesquite trees, visit my blog this month at:


To learn more about how native animals use this plant, visit my blog on:


This article copyright Jacqueline A. Soule, 2014. The topic is covered more extensively in my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15). If you live in Tucson, I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery.

Categories: Edible Landscape Plant, Gardening, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal | Tags: , , | 9 Comments

Enjoy Beans with Epazote

Chenopodium_Dysphania_ambrosioides_08_by H ZellEpazote (formerly Chenopodium ambrosoides, now renamed Dysphania ambrosioides) came to our area from Mayan lands. The name is the same in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English. Who says you are not multilingual?!

Epazote is a summer annual herb popular for culinary and medicinal uses. By the time of Contact, epazote had been cultivated for well over a thousand years in southern and southeast coastal Mexico. It was, and still is, a principle flavoring for a large number of Yucatan and Veracruz dishes, and is indispensable for cooking black beans.

Chenopodium Dysphania ambrosioides by iamtexture

Epazote, like the Old World herbs of cumin and ginger, has the unique ability to help break down hard-to-digest vegetable proteins. These difficult proteins are found most often in beans, peas, and members of the cabbage family. A few leaves of epazote cooked in the pot with the potential offender help break down these offending proteins while alo providing a delightfully piquant flavor to the dish.

This strongly scented herb is reported as a deer repellent. I can report that javalina, jackrabbits, cottontails and quail all avoid eating the plants. Medicinally, epazote has been used in an infusion as a vermifuge (against intestinal parasites), and in a decoction to help induce labor. These uses lead to one of it’s common names, wormseed.

Chenopodium Dysphania_ambrosioides_9061 by t voekler

Planting and Care. Plant epazote from seed in spring once night temperatures rise above the low 50’s. Seeds can take as long as four weeks to germinate. Plants will thrive through the warm season and freeze to the ground at 35 degrees, but often regrow from the roots.

Seed Sources. Check the Pima County Seed Library.  No need to drive there, go online to check for seed availability then reserve some sent to your local branch.  I have also found seed through Renee’s Garden Seed and Botanical Interests.

Soil. Epazote tolerates poor, even clay soil, but plants grow best in average, well-drained soil. Can be grown in containers that are at least eight  inches deep.

Chenopodium_Dysphania_ambrosioides  by S Doronenko

Location. Full sun is ok in the Southwest, but afternoon shade is appreciated by this tropical herb.

Water. Moderate.

Fertilize. Not necessary, but once a month with general purpose fertilizer will help make bushy plants. To really keep the plants bushy, you will need to pinch often. This is a technical term, really! (see “Care”).

Habit & Care. Epazote can reach 5 feet, but will be scraggly. Pinch or clip off the growing tips often to keep it around 2 to 3 feet tall, compact, leafy, and looking attractive in the garden. Usually a single plant provides enough for the household. Epazote reseeds readily, remove the flowering stalks, or be ready to weed excess plants next year. Seed heads turn an attractive bronze in autumn, and finches enjoy the seeds.


Harvest and Use. Epazote is used fresh for culinary purposes, and loses “digestive” properties when dried. Chop or mince leaves and add early to dishes that require long cooking, like beans, roasts, soups, or stews. Use one tablespoon minced leaves per cup of beans or to a two pound roast. Not used as a garnish, due to bitter taste. If you want to save epazote for winter use, chop up fresh leaves and freeze them.

Chenopodium_Dysphania_ambrosioides_courtesy of UDSA_01

Go Green. Use epazote to avoid using manufactured bean-digestive compounds. Having the plants in your yard saves packaging, shipping, and all the associated waste of resources inherent in manufactured goods. Even greener, epazote plants provide food for birds, a way to capture carbon, plus a lovely low green plant for your yard.

This article is exerpeted from my book “Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today” (2011, Tierra del Sol Press, $15). I hope you will consider purchasing a copy locally at Antigone Books, Arizona Experience Store, Magic Garden, Mostly Books, or Rillito Nursery. You can visit my booth at the Arizona Feeds Country Store Spring Expo, Sat. May 3 (10-3), 4743 N. Highway Dr.

Categories: Cooking, Gardening, Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Edible Flowers of Spring

Ocotillo blossoms

Ocotillo blossoms

It’s Carolyn today. Two months ago Tia Marta wrote about gathering and preparing delicious cholla buds, but that is only the barest beginning of the edible flowers that can add fun and interest to our meals. Spring is the best time to find the biggest bounty of  beautiful munchibles.  Gather a bowlful of ocotillo blossoms, add water, and let it stand overnight. You’ll have a delicate juice. The flowers must be open for the nectar to leach into the water.  I wrote about the early Native American uses to ocotillo as a medicinal herb in American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest. 

Ford at Empire 015

Blossoms on elderberry bush.

This is also the season for elderberry bushes to flower.  Sometimes called elderblow, the flowers make delicious fritters.  I have given full directions in my earlier blog Carolyn’s Southwest Kitchen and you can see it here.

Moving from the desert to your own garden, you’ll find many edible flowers. Many of them make delicious additions to salads.  Among them are nasturtium flowers, which have bright, peppery flavor.

Two colors of nasturtium flowers on a fresh garden salad.

Two colors of nasturtium flowers on a  garden salad.

Arugula tends to bolt early and especially did so on this very hot spring on the Sonoron Desert.  But the flowers, though small, taste lovely, not quite as intense as the the leaves.

Arugula flowers

Arugula flowers


Other delicious salad additions are pansies and violas, their smaller cousins.



When I began gathering material for this post, I recalled a dish I made  years ago that involved sauteeing chicken with cinnamon and rose water and then finishing the dish with a sprinkle of small rose and marigold petals.  My friend Suzann and I served that at a wedding we catered for two naturalists.



Teacup rose

Teacup rose


Dried edible flowers make wonderful and healthy teas. Tina Bartsch at Walking J Farm grows and dries calendula flowers for John Slattery  at Desert Tortoise Botanicals who uses them as one ingredient in his Desert Flower Tea. He combines them with desert willow flowers, ocotillo flowers, hollyhock flowers, and prickly pear flowers.  His website says that the tea is an anti-oxidant and good for tissue repair.  The tea is available at Native Seeds Search,  Tucson Community Acupuncture,  the Food Conspiracy. Calendula petals taste  tangy and peppery and add a golden hue to food. Calendula has been called “the poor man’s saffron.”

Calendula flowers drying

Calendula flowers drying


Desert Flower Tea

Desert Flower Tea


One of the most used flowers in cooking, particularly in Mexico, is the squash flower.  The male flowers will never develop into squash, so you can harvest some of them. When I was in Oaxaca a few summers ago, I took a cooking class from Chef Oscar Crespo and just had the best time.  One of the things we cooked was stuffed squash blossoms.  Here is the recipe.

Squash blossoms

Squash blossoms

Cheese-filled Squash Flower Blossoms


12 squash flower blossoms, washed

½ cup (2.5 oz/80 g) fresh cheese, sliced into sticks

12 epazote leaves (optional)

1 cup all-purpose  flour

3/4 cup club soda

Oil for frying


Slice the cheese so that it fits in the blossoms. Remove the sepals and pistils (that’s the parts inside the petals), then cut the stem to 1¼ in . Fill the whole blossom with a slice of cheese and an epazote leaf. Push the cheese all the way in, and twist the petals to close.

Make a batter with the flour and club soda, starting with 1/2 cup of the club soda. Add more if necessary to make a thin batter like pancake batter.

Place the oil in a frying pan and bring to high heat, about 350 degrees. Dip the stuffed blossoms in the flour mixture. Fry them for 2 minutes or until golden brown, turning at least once. Remove from the oil and drain on absorbent paper.

These can be served accompanied with a red or green salsa or floated in a tomato  broth.

For more ideas on cooking squash blossoms, check here.  If you want more information on edible flowers, you can click here and here.


Carolyn Niethammer writes books on the food and people of the Southwest.


Categories: Cooking, Gardening, Sonoran Medicinal, Southwest Food, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Exciting Ephedra

For an unusual herb in your landscape, why not try a unique shrub that was around before dinosaurs roamed the earth – ephedra.  In fact, there is some evidence that dinosaurs fed on this unusual herb, and it has lived on while the dinosaurs are gone.  You gotta respect a history like that.


Ephedra is a unique looking shrub, well adapted to life in the Southwest. Photo by H. E. Price

Various species of ephedra are found around the world, and human use of the herb dates back at least 5000 years.  As with many long used herbs, the common name and scientific name are the same, ephedra and Ephedra.  In the Southwest, ephedra is also commonly called Mormon tea or joint fir.  In the Tucson area, Ephedra trifurca is the most prevalent species.

Ephedra_torreyana_4_by_Stan Shebs

There are seven species of ephedra that grow in the Southwest. Photo by Stan Shebs.

Ephedra has long been used as a herbal tea, a morning “pick me up” by Mormons and gentiles alike who wish to avoid caffeine.  The compound ependrine is a proven stimulant (exciting ephedra!).  Excessive use of ephedra can be a problem however, especially when extracted from the plant and condensed into pill form (see Note Below).  That can be said about many herbal remedies.  All things in moderation is a good idea when using any plant product.  Even too much spinach can have consequences, but that is a story for another day.

Ephedra_trifurca_by_Derrick Coetzee

Ephedra trifurca is the most common ephedra in the Tucson area. Photo by D. Coetzee.

Finely ground ephedra twigs have been used in exfoliating skin wash blends, used to help  remove dead skin cells.  The plant is relatively high in silica, a compound used to make glass.

Our native ephedra (Ephedra trifurca) is ideal for the full sun landscape featuring native plants.  Its leafless olive green branches reach skyward with a dichotomous branching pattern that is a joy to trace with your eye.  Ephedra is a low water plant, and does best in a well-drained soil.

Ephedra-nevadensis-cones_by_ Joe Decruyenaere

Ephedra seed in borne in tiny cones. Pluck and plant the entire cone if you wish to grow ephedra.
Photo by J. Decruyenaere.

Ephedra is very easy to grow, but tough to get started.  If you find some in a nursery, be very careful to transplant it with the root ball intact.  You can try it from cuttings, and I have had the best success with young wood cuttings taken after the first monsoon rain has soaked the plant.  You can also grow it from “seed” (technically cone-like structures, not true seeds).  As soon as the tiny hairs exerted from the cone have dried up, harvest these cones and plant them in a blend of three parts sand to one part potting soil sand.  Keep evenly moist for three months and you should see results.

Harvest & Use
If you wish to avoid coffee or Chinese tea because of the “ungreen” way these products are grown, harvested, and shipped, ephedra tea can serve as a morning beverage.  Steep a tea using one heaping teaspoon of finely broken dried branches per cup of water.  This makes a brew similar to green tea in intensity of flavor.


Ephedra makes a bitter, stimulating morning tea.
Photo by J.A. Soule.

Harvest and dry ephedra in early spring before it begins it’s bloom cycle.  This is when it is most potent.  Use dried material within one year.


Ephedra is easy to dry for later use, and makes a more palatable, less bitter, brew than fresh material.
Photo by J. A. Soule.

Note Below: A history of recent ephedra misuse and subsequent ban:

Steve Bechler, a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, died of complications from heatstroke following a spring training workout on 17 February 2003.  The medical examiner found that ephedra toxicity played a “significant role” in Bechler’s sudden death.  Following Bechler’s death, the FDA re-opened its efforts to regulate ephedra use.  Bruce Silverglade, legal director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest said, “All of a sudden [after Bechler’s death] Congress dropped objections to an ephedra ban and started demanding the FDA act.”  Senator Orrin Hatch, who in 1999 had helped block the FDA’s attempts to regulate ephedra, said in March 2003 that, “It has been obvious to even the most casual observer that problems exist,” and called FDA regulation of ephedra “long overdue.”  Given Hatch’s prior defense of ephedra, Time magazine described his statement as “a dazzling display of hypocrisy.”

In response to renewed calls for the regulation of ephedra, the FDA commissioned a large scale analysis of ephedra’s safety and efficacy.  The study found that ephedra promoted modest short-term weight loss, but there was no evidence that it was effective for long-term weight loss or performance enhancement.
Almost simultaneously, a study in Annals of Internal Medicine reported that ephedra was 100 to 700 times more likely to cause a significant adverse reaction than other commonly used herbal supplements such as kava-kava or Ginkgo biloba (neither of which affect the heart).

On December 30, 2003, the FDA issued a press release recommending that consumers stop buying and using ephedra, and indicating its intention to ban the sale of ephedra-containing supplements.  Subsequently, on 12 April 2004, the FDA issued a final rule banning the sale of ephedra-containing dietary supplements.

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Categories: Sonoran herb, Sonoran Medicinal, Sonoran Native, Southwest Food | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

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