With a unique kind of
beauty, and averaging about 10 inches of rainfall a year, the desert offers odd
looking trees, craggy bushes and prickly cacti as a landscape. The tranquility and strange beauty of the desert landscape
attracted tribes of Native Peoples who thrived here centuries ago.
Those who are unfamiliar with deserts may
think of them as barren and hostile wastelands, but deserts can also be lush and
beautiful. For thousands of years Native Peoples relied on them
for shelter, food and medicine.
natives had to have an intimate knowledge of their
surroundings and take advantage of what the desert had to offer.
They knew which plants to gather for food, for fiber and for
medicine, and some plants were used for ceremonies. This specialized
knowledge of plant use has been handed down for generations and some
of this knowledge is still in use today. Growing in the desert are
over 400 kinds of edible plants and hundreds of others have medicinal
This is a typical
Western Apache Household called a wickiup.
the Apache were a semi-nomadic group with a wide range of territory
including this Sonoran Desert in Southwestern Arizona. The nomadic lifestyle
of the Apache allowed them
to move seasonally through a variety of habitats which provided all
the materials they needed for food, shelter, medicine, basket
weaving and their religious ceremonies.
structures as shown in the photo above are made from willow saplings held together by split
yucca leaves and thatched with cottonwood and willow branches.
You can see the
stone circle used for a fire pit inside the wickiup.
Here I am
standing at the entrance of this wickiup to give you an idea of the
size. Entire families lived inside these shelters.
cactus offer beautiful subtle shades of green and lavender, and
newer paddles appear bright crimson. They are found in most of the
deserts in the American Southwest and both the fruits of the cactus
and the paddles themselves are edible.
knew this and would harvest both the fruit and the paddles, also
known as Nopalitos. Filled with slowly absorbed soluble
fibers that help keep blood sugar stable, new studies show they
are good for controlling cholesterol levels as well.
Nopales are a
staple food used in modern Mexico today.
Here is a close
look at another species of Prickly Pear cactus.
grown and eaten as a vegetable in Central Mexico since before the
Spanish arrived. The Spanish explorers took the plant back to Europe
where it spread throughout north Africa with the Moors. Today the
plant is grown throughout Mexico, parts of the United States and in
many areas of the Mediterranean.
This is a
mesquite corral and is typical of those built by Spanish ranchers to
contain their livestock. Most livestock fences are built of wire
today, but the mesquite corrals were low cost and durable.
Life in the
desert changed a great deal after the Spanish introduced farm
Hauling heavy loads, growing crops, traveling and trading were all
made easier by having livestock to help. Of course owning
animals added new responsibilities to the daily routine of the
Mesquite was also
used for wheels, handles on new metal tools, and even for saddles.
Its pitch was used to dye fibers in basket making, and the bean pods
were pounded into a sweet flour used in many foods. Today in
Northern Mexico, a popular refreshing drink is made from this flour.
This is an Akimel O'odham roundhouse. Much lower to the ground than the
Western Apache wickiup.
To the left of
the roundhouse here in this photo is a kitchen also in the style of
the Akimel O'odham native peoples. The Akimel O'odham were another
tribe who lived in the Sonoran desert which covers southern Arizona
and Northern Mexico. These roundhouses were used for storage, for
privacy, shelter and for sleeping.
means River People. River People in the desert? Yes, there
are several rivers in this area of the American Southwest - The Gila, The Salt, The Yaqui,
and The Sonora.
A closer look
inside this open, roofless structure.
The kitchen was a
center of activity during the day. When food was being prepared, the
roofless kitchen allowed the heat from cooking to dissipate quickly.
The low walls are made of arrow-weed. Mesquite was the primary
fuel source, but other woods like palo verde were used as
This is another
structure typically built by the Akimel O'odham a century ago.
into Saguaro forests during the summer time to harvest the fruit of
these cacti. Ramadas like this one provided much needed shade and
ventilation for outdoor activities, and were furnished with beds,
cooking utensils, food and water.
fruit is cooked to form a juicy pulp. After straining out the seeds
and pulp, the juice is cooked further to make a tasty syrup. The
seeds and pulp are utilized in foods such as porridge, jam and seed
The Saguaro has
ribs that allows the cactus to expand and contract in response to
the amount of moisture it is storing. This ability to store water is
a survival adaptation that allows the Saguaro cactus to live in the
desert where there might not be rain for months at a time.
A large Saguaro
cactus can hold 6 tons of water (!) and a large cactus can lose 2/3
of its water and still live.
wide-spreading roots quickly gather up rainwater even when the rain
is short lived. Additional roots, called 'rain roots' grow after a
shower and are able to collect even more moisture for the plant.
Who would have
guessed that the desert could provide such sweet shade? Rivers and
grass-filled marshes allow for abundant plants to grow giving much
desired relief from the relentless desert sun.
On this typically
heat-scorched day when we visited this exhibit, the shade here was
noticeably cooler and most inviting.
Water is scarce
but can be found in streams and occasional seeps and springs. These
desert oases support many plants that would not normally be found in
an area so dry. Reeds, cattail, cottonwood, willow and the very
important mesquite trees can all grow abundantly where there is
Many grasses have edible seeds,
and materials needed
for construction are located in these marshes.
like yucca and agave can be made into rope and twine. Finer fibers
can be woven into nets, baskets, shoes and clothing.
many types of agave have been used as sources for food often being
roasted in pits. The plant was so important, that some desert
peoples grew it as a crop instead of relying on gathering it wild.
It takes one to four days to roast agave in a roasting pit. The
leaves are removed from the short, thick stem of the plant, exposing
the 'heart.' The hearts are then sandwiched in between layers of
moist vegetation in a rock-lined fire pit and covered with dirt to
bake. Freshly baked agave is extremely sweet and low in calories.
Here is an
example of a 'mini' ramada and a small fire pit. Pits used to
roast the agave hearts were much deeper. A fire pit this size was
most likely used to steam the leaves which took a shorter time
period. Leaf pulp was scraped off leaving the fibers which were then
twisted and spliced together to make balls of twine.
It's hard to
imagine a life in the intense desert heat without air conditioning,
water fountains or a grocery store on the corner. But centuries
before effective water transport (allowing for golf courses, tennis
courts, and international restaurants) man was living here in a
direct encounter with nature.
To see extensive
desert gardens, displays by artists like
to learn more of the ancient peoples who lived in these harsh
climates centuries ago, visit
The Desert Botanical Gardens in
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