prickly pear cactus close up with fruit in red color

Sweet red fruit rests on the arm of a prickly Saguaro. Yellowing pods are ground into meal. Spiked bright-green pads are roasted over a crackling fire pit.

You can replicate meals made more than a thousand years ago from plants growing in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. To learn more, take an early morning nature walk in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek. (Maricopa County park ranger Kevin Smith reminds visitors not to pick desert plants on government property unless you’re on a guided tour.)

Here are nine desert fruits and legumes that you can turn into a snack or meal.

1. Prickly pear

Prickly pears are a sweet treat but you must take extra precaution when picking it. (Photos by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
Prickly pears are a sweet treat but you must take extra precaution when picking it. (Photos by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

From ice cream to candy to margaritas, prickly pear makes the rounds in many Southwest kitchens. This bright, magenta fruit with a texture similar to watermelon remains known for its delicate flavor and versatility. Carefully pull out the spines first. And yes, you have to spit out the seeds.

2. Mesquite

The bright green pods that hang from the Mesquite tree contain a nutritious and versatile snack. The pods are most useful when dried and ground into meal or flour. (Photo By Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
The bright green pods that hang from the Mesquite tree contain a nutritious and versatile snack. The pods are most useful when dried and ground into meal or flour. (Photo By Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

Eating mesquite pods allow you to enjoy Christmas all year long. The greenish-yellow pods can be ground into a coarse meal you can incorporate into staples such as tortillas, tamale masa and cookies. Mesquite tastes spicy, similar to gingerbread. Check out a recipe for making your own mesquite flour and cookies from the Arizona Historical Society (PDF).

3. Jojoba

Jojoba seed oil is found many cosmetic products but you can also eat the accompanying seed. Ranger Kevin Smith allows hikers to sample the almond like flavor of the Jojoba seed. (Photo by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
Jojoba seed oil is found many cosmetic products but you can also eat the accompanying seed. Ranger Kevin Smith allows hikers to sample the almond like flavor of the Jojoba seed. (Photo by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

Pick up a bottle of lotion and you may recognize the name of this oily plant. Known for its moisturizing properties, Jojoba (pronounced ho-ho-bah) frequently winds up in cosmetic products. If you find this large bush in your area, you can also eat the nuts that are found on the female variety of the plant, which you’ll know from the seed pods. The nut carries a bitter flavor similar to an almond.

4. Saguaro

It takes a lot of work to harvest the Saguaro fruit. The fruit usually rests high up on the arms of the cactus and a special tool is needed to reach it. (Photos By Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
It takes a lot of work to harvest the Saguaro fruit. The fruit usually rests high up on the arms of the cactus and a special tool is needed to reach it. (Photos By Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

Saguaro cacti are native to Arizona and a protected species, so don’t pick them from a park or other government-protected area. If you find one of these desert rarities on your property, only pick the fruit once the rind turns from a pale color to a deep green. Just watch out for the needles. Once you get the fruit the real fun starts. It features a built-in “pick ax” at the top; twist it off and then hack at the fruit to create a small opening. Scoop out the pulp and you’ll get a taste similar to a strawberry. Saguaro fruit can also be fermented and preserved.

5. Ironwood

Clockwise starting at left: Ranger Kevin Smith shows hikers pods of an ironwood tree; ironwood pods are a pale yellow color when they’re ready to eat; Smith shows the group his ironwood seed bounty. (Photos by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
Clockwise starting at left: Ranger Kevin Smith shows hikers pods of an ironwood tree; ironwood pods are a pale yellow color when they’re ready to eat; Smith shows the group his ironwood seed bounty. (Photos by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

Though ironwood looks similar to the Mesquite tree, ironwood’s brown, shiny seeds taste similar to piñon nuts. Conservationists are trying to revive the slow growing ironwood, which is rich in protein but can only be harvested two weeks out of the year.

6. Wolfberry

The wolfberry is high in antioxidants and can be picked even in the full heat of summer. (Photos by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
The wolfberry is high in antioxidants and can be picked even in the full heat of summer. (Photos by Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

Blink, and you might miss this bright red berry. The wolfberry doesn’t last very long on the stem, but if you grab one before its time passes your taste buds will dance from the distinct tart taste. The wolfberry hails from the same family as the trendy Goji berry, both known for being rich in antioxidants.

7. Agave

Interpretative ranger Kevin Smith, of the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, shows hikers the spikes of the Agave plant. (Photo By Elizabeth Hansen/Cronkite News)
Interpretative ranger Kevin Smith, of the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, shows hikers the spikes of the Agave plant. (Photo By Elizabeth Hansen/Cronkite News)

Murphy’s Agave found its way from its native northern Mexico to Arizona thanks to trade between ancient Sonoran tribes like the Hohokam. Agave leaves can be harvested and then roasted. The leaves taste sweet, like pineapple. You’ll also find Agave syrup touted as a more healthy alternative to processed sugar, but tread lightly at first as it doesn’t sit well with everyone’s digestion.

8. Buckhorn cholla

Watch out! The Cholla cactus’s spikes protect an okra-like inside that's easy to cook. (Photo By Elizabeth Hansen/Cronkite News)
Watch out! The Cholla cactus’s spikes protect an okra-like inside that’s easy to cook. (Photo By Elizabeth Hansen/Cronkite News)

One look at the spiked tendrils of the cholla cactus and your first instinct might be to look elsewhere for food. But fans of okra will definitely want to try the buds of the buckhorn cholla. Used in ancient times as a snack, buckhorn cholla buds can be roasted and boiled. The buds also have a long shelf life when dehydrated, so you can save them for years. To reawaken the soft, gummy texture simply boil the buds for twenty minutes.

9. Palo Verde seeds

Palo Verde pods may be seen as litter by some but these hard seeds a great snack after they’ve been roasted. (Photos By Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)
Palo Verde pods may be seen as litter by some but these hard seeds a great snack after they’ve been roasted. (Photos By Elizabeth S. Hansen/Cronkite News)

Although the scattered yellow buds of the Palo Verde tree are a nuisance to many Arizonans with allergies, the pods that dangle from the tree can also make a delicious snack. They taste best right after a monsoon storm, as rain softens the pod. Certain varieties have pods that taste like sugar snap peas.

– Socorro Carrillo and Elizabeth S. Hansen, Cronkite News / Edited for Phoenix.org