Native Americans and Desert Plants

"There is no trash dump in this town. Everything is thrown into the river."
mountain guide in Huaray, Peru
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Native Americans have been using desert plants for thousands of years. They use plants for a food source, medicines, tools, shelters, clothing, and in religious ceremonies. In hunter/gatherer societies, often times the gathering made up to 90% of all the food consumed, with the hunting being only 10%. Literature mostly portrays the male as the hunter and main family provider, but perhaps it was the woman who were the primary providers, as they were the ones who did most of the gathering.

Agaves were one of the Native American's most important plants. Agaves were used as food, fiber, and as a trade item with other tribes who didn't have access to agaves. Almost all of the agave can be eaten, including the leaves, stalks, blossoms, and seeds. Harvesting agaves was hard work, because the entire plant was usually pried out of the ground. The leaves and stalks were roasted in layered pits, or pounded into cakes which could be keep and ate at a later time. The leaf was eaten like an artichoke, and the juicy brown center is said to taste like molasses. The flowers were boiled to remove bitterness and were then eaten or sun-dried for later consumption. Seeds were ground into flower for cooking. Remember that tequila is made from agaves and native Americans made an intoxicating drink called pulque from the agave. Agave fibers were used to make bowstrings, brushes, cradles, nets, shoes, shirts, mats, rope, baskets, and hunting snares. There are eight species of agaves found in the desert Southwest, and most grow in the rocky soils below 5000 feet. They are found everywhere from the Great Basin, well into Mexico.
Barrel Cacti (Ferocactus)
Barrel cacti are reputed to be life-savers for people stranded in the desert, who have survived by drinking the interior juices of barrel cacti. This is probably not true for the liquid in barrel cacti is too alkaline to drink. Native Americans knew this and they didn't drink the barrel cacti juices, believing it would give them bad headaches, pain, and diarrhea. The flowers and the seed pods of the cacti were harvested, boiled to remove bitterness, and eaten or dried and stored for later use. Seeds were often pounded and mixed with water to make a gruel. The meat of the cacti, after the spins were removed, were used on sore parts of the body to relieve pain. Barrel cacti were also hollowed out and used for containers.
Beavertail Cactus (Opuntia Basilaris)
All parts of the beavertail cactus were consumed by Native Americans. This cactus has small spins and large fruit. To remove the small spines or "glochids," the Indians rubbed the pads in sand. Before they were eaten, the pads were cut into small pieces and boiled in water. Some Indians dried the pads so they could be eaten later. The fruit of the beavertail cacti rippens in spring and can be quite sweet by summer. The seed of the cactus are quite large and were often ground up and added with water to make a mush. Indians also used the pads as medicine for healing cuts and wounds. The "glochid" spines were often rubbed into moles or warts in belief that such treatment would make them go away.
Creosote Bush
Creosote bushes are one of the most wide spread bushes of the desert Southwest. The creosote bush had many medicinal uses to the American Indian. They used it as we use antibiotics today. A dry powder made from the creosote leaves was used as an antibacterial when applied to cuts , wounds, or burns. Native Americans used a compound of crushed creosote stems and water to lesson the pain of rheumatisn. Indians drank a tea made from leaves and stems, to ease respiratory infections, constipation, and menstral cramps. Indians with tuberculosis and venerial diseases were also given this creosote tea. The Cahuilla Indians would inhale the vapors of boiled creosote leaves as a remedy for respiratory problems. A chemical compound called nordihydroguaiaretic (NDGA) found in creosote leaves was shown to inhibit the growth of cancerous tumors in laboratory animals. Indians often cooked their meals over creosote wood fires, giving the food an extra flavor. A sticky substance from an insect known as the lac scale, which is found on creosote branches, was used to mend pottery and waterproof baskets.
Desert Willow (Chilopsis Linearis)
Native American knew that where they saw desert willows, there was usually water nearby, or water close to the surface. The wood from the desert willow is strong and flexable, and resistant to decay, so Indians used this wood to build their houses. Desert willow branches were also used to make baskets. Long straight desert willow branches were used to knock fruit from plants which could not be reached by hand. Some Indian tribes used willow branches for their hunting bows. Forked branches were used to hold jars and pots. Occasionally, bark from the desert willow was removed, pounded, stretched, and make into nets and clothing. The flowers and seedpods were sometimes eaten, but more often were used to make a tea.
Fan Palm (Washingtonia Filifera)
The Fan Palm is the only native Palm in the Western United States. Native Americans had many uses for the Fan Palm, including food, construction material, tools, clothing, weapons, ceremonial objects, and shade. The large , durable, and long-lasting Fan Plam leaves were used to thatch roofs, and walls of dwellings. Palm fibers were used to make baskets and sandals. Palm leaves were carved into shovels, spoons, and stirring utensils. Indians ate the tender tips of the young growing palms. The pitch from the crown was sometimes boiled and eaten. Each palm tree can produce up to 400 lbs. of fruit per tree. Palm fruit was often eaten raw and fresh from the tree. Other times the palm fruit was dried and stored for later use. Later, the dried fruit would be ground into flour and made into mush. Tea was made from boiled fruit.
Gourd (Cucurbita)
There are 6 species of gourds which grow in the Desert Southwest. At Joshua Tree , we have the coyote mellon. Gourds were used by Indians as food, medicine, musical instruments, bowls, and soap. All parts of the gourd contain saponin, a compound used in making soap. Root pieces were crushed to make a liquid soap. Some Indian tribes obtain oil from the seeds and used it for cooking oil. Seeds were dried , and ground up to make mush. Some parts of the gourd were used to treat pain and sickness. The pulp of the gourd was spread on cuts and ulcers to prevent infection and help healing. Ground up seeds were also used as a first aid treatment. Dried gounds were used as bowls, vessels and containers, and rattles for ceremonies and musical instruments.
Jimson Weed (Datura)
Jimson weed is a deadly plant. Indian shaman used it as a hallucinogenic for ceremonies and religious purposes. All parts of the plant are toxic and contain toxic chemicals. A Shaman would drink small quantities of a concoction made from ground leaves. Visions recieved during the hallucinations gave the shaman special knowledge and powers, that the shaman would share with other members of the tribe. In some tribes, a shaman would give jimson weed to boys at puberty as a rite of passage to manhood. Jimson weed was also used as first aid. A paste was made from the leaves and stems and applied to broken bones, and swollen joints to reduce swelling and relieve pain. Inhaling the fumes of boiled leaves was used in relieving respritory ailments. Women were given jimson weed to prevent miscarriages. Scientists have discovered that jimson weed contains lectins that are known to destroy malignant tumor cells.