Sonoran Desert Plants

Many Desert Plants Can Help Improve Your Health

Many Sonoran Desert plants are not only used for food but to make natural healing remedies for both topical and internal use. In spite of this region's temperature extremes, the native Pima Indians have used the fruit, seeds, leaves, pads and even the flowers of these desert plants as a source of food and medicine for hundreds of years.

Dave Morris, a Native American (Choctaw) naturalist who works with the Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix, AZ refers to the Sonoran desert as a "drugstore and a grocery store". His comment is based on the wide variety of uses attributed to the Sonoran Desert plants found in this region of the U.S. Southwest and Mexico.

Described below are a few of the more popular Sonoran Desert plants that are still being used today for food and as natural remedies.

Nopal Cactus (Prickly Pear)

The nopal cactus (prickly pear) has been used medicinally by the indigenous peoples of this region for centuries. It has been used traditionally to lower blood sugar levels and to reduce the side effects of drinking too much alcohol.

The juice of the cactus pads has been used for scrapes and minor burns. According to research studies the nopal cactus fruit (figs) helps to reduce pain and inflammation associated with a number of ailments.

The reason nopal cactus fruit has so many health benefits is due to the high number of betalains found in the fruit. Betalains are antioxidant proteins. They give the nopal fruit its bright color. Due to the hot summers and cold winters in areas of the Sonoran Desert the nopal cactus produces high levels of betalains to protect itself from the elements. There are 24 known betalains and the nopal cactus of the Sonoran Desert is the only plant that contains up to all 24. Nopal cactus found in other areas of the world do not have the same number of betalains. Other foods containing betalains are Swiss Chard and beets. Neither one of these foods have the same number of betalains as can be found in nopal cactus fruit.

The pad of the nopal cactus has been used as a vegetable in Mexico for centuries. They are called "nopalitos" in Spanish. The spines on the prickly pear cactus pads are removed and the pad is then grilled over the fire like a juicy steak.

The ripe nopal cactus fruit can be eaten like any fresh fruit with one caution; even the fruit has little spines on the surface and must be handled with care. The cactus fig must be split open with a sharp knife and the inner fruit eaten or scooped into a bowl. Nopal cactus fruit tastes like a ripe watermelon. Fresh nopal cactus fruit can be eaten by itself or added to a tasty smoothie drink. Here is a recipe for a healthy Sonoran Desert smoothie:

2 cactus fruit or 2 ozs of Nopalea juice 1 cup frozen ripe red grapes 1 tablespoon chia seeds 1 banana (fresh or frozen) 1 cup of soy milk 1/2 cup of plain yogurt

Add the pulp of the Nopal cactus fruit along with the other ingredients. Blend well until smooth. This recipe makes two 8 oz. glasses of yummy smoothie!

The nopal cactus juice and pulp have also been added to a nutrition drink called Nopalea. This is the most convenient way to benefit from the many health promoting qualities of the nopal fruit.

Chia Seeds

Anciently, the Aztec Indians grew chia plants for their seeds. The chia seeds gave their warriors strength and stamina. Chia seeds were such an important part of the Aztec soldier's diet that whenever the Spaniard Conquistadores found fields of chia they destroyed them.

Today, we know that chia seeds contain high amounts of Omega 3 and Omega 6 oils. The seeds are also a great source of antioxidants, vitamins and fiber. They also contain calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, copper, niacin, and zinc.

In spite of all its nutrient power seeds from the chia plant is gluten free and has fewer net carbs than most other grains.

The chia plant (salvia hispanica) is a member of the mint family. Fortunately, pests and insects do not like the plant so it is easy for farmers to grow organic chia without the use of pesticides and insect sprays. Chia is grown commercially in Latin America, Australia and here in the U.S. in Southwestern Arizona.

Creosote Bush

The creosote bush (chapparal) is one of the most common plants in the Sonoran Desert. It is found in some of the driest parts of this desert region. This is due in part to its ability to successfully fight other plants for limited water resources. Creosote is used as a germ killer and in treating tumors.


The brittlebush is related to sunflowers and has a bright yellow flower similar to a sunflower but much smaller. It is found in higher elevations of the Sonoran Desert. Teas made from the brittlebush are used as treatments for colds and flu. Ground brittlebush was used by the native inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert on sores and to relieve pain.

Mesquite Tree

The Mesquite tree is indigenous to the Sonoran Desert and other areas in the U.S. and Mexico. It is a hardy species and is difficult to eradicate. Some ranchers consider the mesquite tree to be a nuisance because it competes with range grass for survival.

Mesquite beans from the mesquite tree are ground into flour to be used to make breads and cakes. The mesquite flour is usually mixed with other flours. Mesquite flour is also added to meal replacement drinks for added nutrition. Mesquite beans can also be used like wood chips to add a nice sweet flavor to grilled meats or fish.

Echinacea Plant

One of the most popular Sonoran Desert plants is echinacea (American Cone Flower). This plant is found not only in the Sonoran Desert region but in other areas of North America as well. The plant forms a beautiful flower similar to a daisy in appearance. Herbalists use its leaves, flowers and roots. It has wide use as an immune system booster and to reduce the effects of the common cold and flu. It is also used to treat upper respiratory infections. Echinacea can also be applied topically to help heal wounds.

The Sonoran Desert plants must be hardy in order to survive the harsh weather conditions they live in. Obtaining the necessary amounts of water is a constant battle in the desert and only the hardiest Sonoran Desert plants survive in this dry unforgiving climate. Fortunately, we don't have to live in this region of the world in order to enjoy the health benefits of these Sonoran Desert plants.

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