Harvesting Desert Almond

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Part of my appreciation of our native desert plants comes from the indispensable gifts that these plants have provided for millennia to humans, wildlife, birds, insects, soils, and the whole ecosystem. Indigenous peoples have long valued and used native desert plants for food, medicine, healing, shelter, clothing, utensils, and ceremony

Desert Almond is a relative of our commercial almond that is smaller than the store-bought almonds that you are familiar with, but they have the same familiar structure: a furry outer covering, a thinner inner shell, and an edible nut inside. What is surprising is the huge flavor burst from a miniature almond as small as a pea — you will taste a cherry-almond flavor reminiscent of marzipan.

Desert Almond’s fruits started to develop in April, and they will be ready for harvest in June and July. You will know they are ready when they turn from green to tan-colored, and drop off easily from the branch when touched.   Desert Almond  is extremely drought-tolerant, which makes it a perfect choice for your desert-friendly yard landscaping. It grows quickly into a dense shrub 6-10 feet high and wide, and can be pruned into any shape you desire. Even though it loses its tiny leaves in winter, its dense branching still makes a good privacy screen or background plant. Antelope Ground Squirrels (the cute little ground squirrels that look like chipmunks) are attracted to this “giving” plant’s nuts and harvest them in large quantities, so you might need to be diligent about watching as the fruits ripen to get part of the bounty.

My favorite use of the “nuts” (actually drupes) is to add a small spoonful of shelled nuts over vanilla ice cream, and then drizzle amaretto liquor over the top for an incredible dessert. As with all plants in this genus, there is a small amount of cyanide in the seed, which is reported to stimulate respiration and improve digestion in small amounts, but which can be poisonous in large amounts if not cooked or leached first.

Late spring and early summer is the time to harvest these tasty native miniature almonds. We encourage you to invite this valuable native plant into your own yard for both drought-tolerant and edible landscaping. 

  1. Desert Almond plant
  2. Desert Almond flowers
  3. Desert Almond unripe green fruit
  4. Desert Almond ripe fruit on stem; outer fuzzy covering usually splits when seed is ripe
  5. Desert Almond ripe seeds harvested
  6. Desert Almond seeds, shells removed – ready to eat in small quantities; roast or leach with water to eat in large quantities

Desert Almond plant parts traditionally used:
  • Seeds – Ripe “nuts” (actually drupes) eaten raw or cooked. Cahuilla Native Americans pounded the almonds, considered a delicacy, into flour and leached the flour with water to remove traces of cyanic acid, which can be toxic in large amounts. Nuts can also be roasted to remove any cyanide. Small amounts can be safely eaten without any processing.

  • Twigs – Used by Kawaiisu Native Americans from California’s Tehachapi Valley as the foreshaft of arrows inserted into the mainsheet of hollow carizzo grass mainshafts.

  • Branches – Used by Kawaiisu Native Americans as a drill in bow-drill fire-making.

 

I would like to share some of the uses of our desert native plants that we can incorporate into our lives today. This use comes with a responsibility to reciprocate thoughtful care and stewardship for these tenacious but fragile desert dwellers. I always encourage respectful harvesting and mindful use of our native plants (join one of our workshops to find out how! We prepare these native plants for you to taste, drink, smell, touch, and experience).

I also strongly encourage the purchase and planting of native plants in our own yards, especially if we want to harvest their gifts regularly (see our section, Native Plant Nurseries, for southwest nurseries that sell California native plants). By incorporating plants into our yards that are native to our own region, we also help sustain native butterflies, native bees, birds, wildlife, and migration corridors for all of them, as well as reducing our dependence on added water, fertilizers, and pesticides in our yards. Growing plants that thrive in our climate also reduces our time and cost to maintain our yard). It is truly a win-win scenario.