Few people think of the Sonoran Desert as bountiful. The sun of southern Arizona and
northern Sonora, Mexico, is unrelenting, and apart from the odd summer monsoon and an inch
or two of rain in midwinter, water is scarce. Yet the Sonoran has supplied Native peoples
with sustenance for thousands of years.
Until the 1940s, the Tohono O'odham (formerly
known as the Papago) and their cousins the Pima relied on foraged wild foods like mesquite
pods, cactus fruit, and chiles for the bulk of their diet, with the rest coming from
cultivated indigenous crops like corn, beans, and squash. Upon entering the American cash
economy, however, the O'odham abandoned their agrarian heritage. Wild foods were replaced
by processed junk, and the O'odham and Pima soon developed nutrition-related health
problems--obesity, high blood pressure, and one of the highest rates of Type II diabetes
in the world.
In the early 1980s, the Tucson branch of the nutrition program Meals for Millions set
out to help the O'odham supplement their diet with homegrown vegetables like broccoli and
tomatoes. While politely accepting the donated vegetables, the O'odham began asking for
the seeds of foods they remembered from childhood: yellow-fleshed watermelon, striped
sunflowers, fast-ripening corn, the fiery chiles called chiltepines--varieties that had
all but died out after commercial foods became available.
The hunt for the heirloom varieties began. Word spread to other reservations in and
around Arizona; seeds that had been lost in one area were found in another, and small
pockets of cultivable wild plants, such as chiles, were rediscovered in hidden canyons and
valleys. Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Arid Lands Resources Clearinghouse) was
Once large numbers of O'odham began to return to a traditional diet, the health
benefits afforded by indigenous crops became clear. Take the prickly pear, a common
cactus. Its tender young paddles (nopalitos) are cooked with onions and chiles, while its
fruit (tuna) is made into a sugary candy. Long a staple of indigenous peoples in Mexico,
it had been largely relegated to ornamental status in the desert Southwest. But the
O'odham found that prickly pear, filled with vitamins, minerals, and soluble fiber, is
among the most healthful plants a diabetic can eat.
Fiber, the plant's way of absorbing and conserving water, is what makes desert plants a
good choice. High-fiber foods slow the digestion and absorption of sugars in the body, and
thus help to regulate blood glucose levels. Plant-based diets also help reduce
cholesterol, a concern for non-insulin-dependent diabetics, who are generally overweight
and at high risk for coronary heart disease. Among the O'odham, a diet high in desert
plants has been found to radically slow and sometimes even reverse Type II diabetes,
obesity, and high cholesterol.
The fiber in some desert plants is found in the form of mucilage, a seed coating that
becomes gelatinous when combined with liquid. Some mucilaginous seeds, such as chia, were
traditionally used to make a refreshing drink, while plantago (also known as psyllium
seed) provides the active ingredient in the fiber supplement Metamucil. Tepary beans,
another desert food, are higher in protein than soybeans. And mesquite meal is sweet and
nutritious; when used in baking, it partially substitutes for wheat flour, while also
reducing the amount of sugar needed.
Native Seeds/SEARCH is now extending to other indigenous communities along the
U.S./Mexico border. Its efforts go beyond demonstrating the health benefits of native
foods: it also hopes to show that a return to the foods of the ancestors can be a source
of self-sufficiency and pride.
Jane Zastaury is non-native to Tucson, where she enjoys growing native plants
almost as much as eating them.
Native desert seed packets are available from Native Seeds/SEARCH free to Native
Americans and, for a nominal cost, to other interested gardeners. Flours, teas, herbs, and
spices are also available. Send $1 for a catalog to Native Seeds/SEARCH at 2509 N.
Campbell Ave., #325, Tucson, AZ 85719.