Nov
30
0

Harvesting Toyon

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.

Toyon, or Christmas Berry, produces clusters of bright red berries that persist all winter, providing perfect holiday decorations for mantels, wreaths, and centerpieces. Native Americans used the cooked or dried berries for food and beverages, and used the leaves for dyes and paints. Today Toyon berries are used to make fruit leathers, cider, cooking spice, and a cranberry-like sauce. Read on for how to prepare these abundant fruits to enjoy at your table.

♦♦♦

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.

I would like to share some of these uses that we can incorporate into our lives today, but this 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.

♦♦♦

Toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) berries are ready for harvest from late fall into winter when they turn bright red. We have been picking clusters from our yard the past few weeks to use for holiday arrangements, and are sharing them with friends for their decorations. We still have plenty to share with the birds who also love the berries. After the holiday decor comes down, save the berries to dry and use as a cooking spice or to make toyon cider. Toyon is a member of the rose family, and like its cousin, the apple, its fruits are technically considered pomes, not berries. For our discussion here, however, we will call toyon fruits “berries.” They are either bland or bitter when fresh, but are transformed into sweeter fruits when either dried or cooked.

Some traditional uses for the berries include:

Toyon fruit leather ~ Fresh berries are simmered, then blended in a food processor, sweetened, spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg, then spread thin onto parchment and dehydrated. Here is the recipe from the “Living Wild Project” book. I make this and it is very tasty.

  • Collect berries in winter
  • 4 cups fresh Toyon berries
  • ½ cup water
  • Lemon juice
  • Manzanita sugar, agave or honey
  • Cinnamon
  • Nutmeg

METHOD

  • Rinse berries and remove stems.
  • Place in a pot and cover with water.
  • Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Add desired sweetener, lemon juice and spices to taste.
  • Cook for another 5 minutes.
  • Blend through food processor or blender until smooth.
  • Pour a thin layer about 1/8 ” thick onto a baking sheet.
  • Let dry in the oven, food dehydrator, or sun, covered with cheesecloth.
  • Cut into strips.

Toyon cider ~ Cover dried berries with water, bring to a boil and simmer for 20-30 minutes while crushing them; strain the berries out and sweetening the “cider” with honey or agave. Both the color and aroma of Toyon cider are very pleasant. Fresh berries can be used, but dried berries are much sweeter.

Toyon “wild berry” sauce ~ Fresh berries are simmered in apple juice, sweetened with honey, thickened with arrowroot, and spiced with orange zest. Here is another recipe from the “Living Wild” book: 

  • Collect berries in winter
  • 1 cup fresh Toyon berries (stems removed)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup apple juice
  • ½ cup honey
  • 1 tbsp arrowroot or organic cornstarch
  • 1 tbsp grated orange zest

METHOD

  • Mix berries, apple juice and honey in a pan and bring to a boil.
  • Simmer for 15 minutes.
  • Stir arrowroot or cornstarch into 2 tbsp apple juice.
  • Pour into berries and stir constantly while bringing to a boil.
  • Remove from heat and add orange zest.
  • Allow to cool before serving.
  • Store in refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.


Toyon berry spice ~ Grind dried berries into a fine powder, then combine with other flours or use as a spice for a tangy, fruity taste.



Winter bouquet including Toyon berries, strawberry tree fruit, sugarbush, and California juniper.


Toyon is a perfect plant for landscaping as well as for decor and food. It is fire-retardant and extremely drought-tolerant, which makes it a smart choice for southwest yards. Toyon creates a beautiful evergreen windbreak, screen, or hedge when left as a multi-branched shrub, reaching heights of 8-12 feet tall. It can be trained, however, into a large tree-like specimen by trimming side branches and leaving just one to several main upright branches; older plants are capable of reaching heights 25-30 feet tall. Songbirds are attracted to this “giving” plant. We encourage you to invite this valuable and versatile native plant into your own yard.

Clockwise photos from upper left:

  1. Toyon shrub in fruit
  2. Toyon flowers 
  3. Toyon ripe berries ready to harvest
  4. Toyon berries harvested
  5. Toyon berries simmering in water
  6. Toyon fruit leather drying

Toyon plant parts traditionally used:

  • Fruits – Used dried or cooked to eat; dried to make a beverage
  • Leaves – Soaked in potash overnight; alum added, then dried and ground for red paint
May
3
0

Harvesting Desert Almond

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.

♦♦♦

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.

I would like to share some of these uses that we can incorporate into our lives today, but this 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.

♦♦♦

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. 

Clockwise photos from upper left:

  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.

 

May
31
0

Sugarbush for “lemonade”

Summer’s approach has teased the “sugar” out of our Sugarbush fruits, which are ready for harvesting from June until August. The red “berries” of our native Sugarbush (Rhus ovata) are oozing with an acidic, sugary sap that imparts a tart flavor to the fruits, technically called drupes (berry-like fruits with one seed enclosed in a hardened shell or “stone”). The sticky berries have a velvety pubescence, and become reddish when ripe.

Native Americans dried the berries to preserve them, soaked them in water, then heated them to make a sort of hot pink lemonade. The tart strings of white sap were used as an acidic flavoring or sweetener for other foods. The dried fruits were also ground into a flour for mush.

This attractive evergreen shrub has lush foliage of leathery leaves that are folded along the midrib, making them look like deep green taco shells. Sugarbush is a favorite landscape plant for southwest gardens, tolerant of drought, heat, wind, and frost. See our Plant of the Month treatment of Sugarbush as a valuable landscape plant.

We have planted sugarbush along the perimeter of our property as a privacy screen, so we have plenty of berries to harvest for beverages. The berries are sticky, so you may want to occasionally wash your hands or wear latex or rubber gloves while harvesting. We love making “wild lemonade” by soaking the berries in hot water. Here is our recipe:

Sugarbush Lemonade ~ Pour 1 quart of boiling water over 2 cups of dried or fresh berries. Do not wash the berries before using, or you will wash the flavoring off the berries. Let steep for about 20 minutes (or use cool water and let stand for 24 hours). Strain through a fine sieve to remove berries. Sweeten to taste with honey, agave nectar, or stevia. Serve chilled for a refreshing drink in summer, or hot as a warming winter brew.

Jun
1
0

Harvesting Native Gardens

~ Bladderpod ~

Spring entices a burst of bright yellow flowers on our native Bladderpod, attracting hummingbirds, hawk moths, gardeners, and ethnobotanists. Besides being an attractive, fire-resistant, evergreen shrub, Bladderpod produces showy clusters of flowers and inflated seed pods that can be eaten if cooked. We’ll share with you how to prepare these treats below.

♦♦♦

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.

I would like to share some of these uses that we can incorporate into our lives today, but this 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.

♦♦♦

Bladderpod ~ Spring and summer are good times to enjoy sautéed flowers and young seed pods of Bladderpod, Peritoma arborea. All parts should be cooked before eating to eliminate the potentially irritating compound glucocapparin (ill-smelling, but it repels insects and herbivores like rabbits from eating the plant). Not everyone is sensitive to this compound, but if you are eating quite a bit of the flowers, flower buds, or seed pods, it is prudent to cook them to render the compound harmless. The flowers and seed pods are simply delicious when sautéed in olive oil with a shake of salt and pepper. The young, green seed pods have a flavor when cooked like a very mild jalapeño pepper. Native American Indians today, relying on native traditions, say that they boil the flowers for several hours (discarding the water several times) before sautéing them to remove any bitterness. We have found them delicious after simply sautéing the fresh flowers — so experiment for yourself!

Bladderpod is in the caper family; you can make your own wild capers by harvesting the unopened flower buds and pickling them (they are longer and slimmer than the commercial, round capers that you are familiar with, but they have a fascinating flavor similar to the capers you are accustomed to eating). Put the unopened flower buds in a jar and cover them with water. Secure the lid and let them sit at room temperature for 24 hours. Every day for three days, drain off the water in a colander or strainer, return the “future capers” to the jar, and cover them with fresh water.

Then soak the flower buds in a brine of equal parts apple cider vinegar and water, with 1 tablespoon of salt per cup of liquid, for at least one week (a month is best). Alternatively, you can soak the flower buds in equal parts seasoned vinegar and water for a delicious caper.

Bladderpod can be encouraged to flower continuously for many months with occasional deep watering. It is also fire-retardant and extremely drought-tolerant, which makes it a perfect choice for your yard. Hummingbirds, hawk moths (that hover like hummingbirds at dusk before the flowers), quail, and other birds are attracted to this “giving” plant. We encourage you to invite this valuable native plant into your own yard. Both you and your birds and pollinators can benefit from its presence (and “presents”).

Clockwise photos from upper left:

  1. Bladderpod shrub in bloom in bloom
  2. Bladderpod flowers and inflated seed pods flowers and buds
  3. Flowers washed and ready to sauté
  4. Bladderpod flowers sautéed in olive oil
  5. Washed young seed pods (seeds inside still soft)
  6. Flower buds to pickle for wild capers

Bladderpod plant parts traditionally used:

  • Seed pods – Young seed pods roasted or sautéed to eat
  • Flowers – Young flowers parboiled, roasted, or sautéed to eat
  • Flower buds – Unopened flower buds pickled to use as wild capers

 

~ Mojave Yucca ~

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.

I would like to share some of these uses that we can incorporate into our lives today, but this 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 classes to find out how!). 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 Native Plant Nurseries  for nurseries that sell California native plants). By incorporating plants native to our own region into our yards, we also help sustain native butterflies, birds, wildlife, and migration corridors for all of them, as well as reducing our dependence on added water, fertilizers, and pesticides in our yards (and growing plants that thrive in our climate reduces our time and cost in maintaining our yard). It is truly a win-win scenario.

Mojave Yucca ~ Spring is the season to try sautéed flowers and flower buds of Mojave Yucca, Yucca schidigera. The flowers and flower buds of Mojave Yucca were roasted or first parboiled then roasted and eaten by indigenous peoples, although the fruits were the most favored part of the plant for eating. I prefer the taste of the sautéed buds to the flowers, but both are enjoyable when sautéed lightly in olive oil, with a shake of salt and pepper. The older flowers become slightly bitter with age as they begin producing more saponins; cooking or boiling breaks down the soap-like saponins. If the flowers you find are at full maturity, check out higher elevations to find younger flowers or unopened flower buds. Native Americans parboiled older flowers before roasting them to remove the bitterness and saponins. A little later in the season, as the fruit pods start to ripen, we will post about how to harvest and prepare the pods either roasted or dried as a fruit leather or mashed into a sweet meal.

Clockwise photos from upper left:

  1. Mojave Yucca in bloom
  2. Washing harvested flowers and buds
  3. Opened flower and unopened flower buds
  4. Mojave Yucca flowers sautéed in olive oil
  5. Washed yucca flower buds
  6. Sautéed flower buds in olive oil

 

Mojave Yucca plant parts traditionally used:

  • Leaf fibers – Bowstrings, netting, ropes, mats, brushes for body painting and pottery, coiled rope soles for sandals, starting material for baskets, saddle blankets, and strings for shell money
  • Seed pods – Toy animals for children, with sticks added for legs; pods roasted when green to eat, or dried and pounded into a sweet meal
  • Flowers – Young flowers roasted or sautéed, older flowers parboiled and then panfried, dried to preserve
  • Flower buds – Unopened flower buds roasted or sautéed and eaten
  • Roots – Mashed & mixed with water for soap
  • Seeds – Necklaces

 

 ~ How to Make Your Own “Ruby Nectar” Juice
from Prickly Pear Cactus Apples ~

 

If making your own healthy drink from cactus fruits that you harvest yourself sounds intriguing, but the spines put you off, we have a solution for you. This simple method doesn’t involve burning off every spine, cutting or scraping off each spine cluster, or even wearing thick, spine-proof gloves. You can put away your matches, knives, scrapers, and gloves. All you need is water.

Tufts of tiny, barbed, hair-like spines called “glochids” dot the surface of prickly pear cactus fruits.

Tufts of tiny, barbed, hair-like spines called “glochids”
dot the surface of prickly pear cactus fruits.

 

This easy and effective method to remove the tiny, hair-like irritating spines (called glochids) from prickly pear cactus fruit is a family secret we’ve decided to share with everyone. My family also developed a method to extract the pure juice that is so easy, you’ll have to try it to believe how simple and tidy it is. We have such fun making this specialty beverage at our home, we think you, too, will enjoy the amazing ease of creating this healthy, “wild” drink.

 

Of course, there is another option: you can buy prickly pear cactus fruits, called cactus apples, cactus pears, or “tunas” in Spanish, from your specialty grocery store or farmer’s market, and the spines will have already been removed. However, you can expect to pay about 99 cents per fruit, a hefty price compared to what you find for free if you just cruise down any southwest neighborhood and discover yards with thousands of cactus apples on prickly pear cactus going mostly unappreciated and unused.

“Prickly Cactus Pears” for sale in a grocery store for 99 cents each –tiny spines already removed.

In the southwest US, fruits of the native Engelmann prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) are often used by residents and by commercial producers of prickly pear syrup and candies, and unsweetened juice. Across the rest of America and around the world, fruits of the prickly pear native to Mexico, Opuntia ficus indica, are the most harvested, as that cactus has been taken from the Americas and spread all over the planet starting with Columbus.

Here’s your key to harvesting, processing, and extracting pure “Ruby Nectar” cactus juice with no risk of spines in your fingers and minimal clean-up from start to finish. You will never need to touch the fruit with your hands during the entire process, and all the tiny glochids will just float away, never to cause any problems on your skin or in your mouth!

Harvesting cactus fruit with tongs. “Cactus apples” on prickly pear cactus usually ripen from June until September or October.

Harvesting cactus fruit with tongs. “Cactus apples” on prickly pear cactus usually ripen from June until September or October.

 

 

 

1. Scout out prickly pear cactus around your neighborhood, and watch for ripening of the fruits (“cactus apples”) from June through September or October. Cactus apples are ripe when they turn deep red, maroon, or in some varieties, bright yellow. Ask permission from neighbors to harvest their fruits if you aren’t the lucky owner of a patch of your own.

 

 

 

Spray water with a jet-stream nozzle, creating a whirlpool to tumble cactus fruits against each other to dislodge the tiny spines into the water.

 

2. Harvest cactus apples using long tongs. Give a twist and pull; ripe fruit comes off easily. Collect in a metal or plastic pail. Transfer cactus apples by pouring small batches of several dozen fruits into a small pail.

 

 

After first wash ~ masses of tiny spines (glochids) will float to the surface.

3. Spray water onto the fruit, using a high-pressure nozzle,  until a “whirlpool” forms inside your pail. This tumbles the fruits against each other, and knocks off the spines, which will float up to the surface of the water.

 

Pour off water and floating glochids after each rinse.

4. Pour off the water with the floating spines. Masses of tiny spines will be knocked off the fruits and float to the top. Discard the spine-filled water onto an area where people and pets don’t walk – water your yard plants! Repeat this rinsing/tumbling process three or four times until you no longer see spines floating on the surface after the water stops whirling.

 

 

Final Rinse Cactus Apples_RK_5633

Final rinse in a colander/pasta pot removes any lingering spines.

 

 

 

After first wash ~ masses of tiny spines (glochids) will float to the surface.

 

5. Final rinse – For extra assurance to remove any lingering spines, we pour the fruits into a pasta pot or colander for a final rinse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Transfer small batches of cleaned apples into freezer bags, label, and freeze for later use throughout the year. During the freezing process, moisture inside the fruits’ cells expands, bursting cell walls to help release more juice upon thawing (cactus fruits are about 85% water).

 

Pierce frozen cactus fruits through the plastic bag to help release juice as the fruits thaw

 

 

 

 

 

7. When you are ready to make juice, remove a bag of frozen cactus apples, and poke holes right through the bag into the frozen fruits using an ice pick or narrow-bladed knife. This will pierce the skin of the fruits and release juice as the fruits thaw.

 

 

 

 

Put the bag of frozen cactus fruits in a colander with a weight on the bag (we use a tea kettle full of water), place the colander over a pot and collect the juice as the fruits thaw.

 

 

 

 

8. Place the bag with frozen fruits into a colander over a collecting pot, and place a weight on the bag to press out the juice as the fruits thaw. We use a tea pot full of water for weight. Then, walk away and wait until the fruits are completely thawed. The pot will collect the pure cactus juice as the fruits thaw. About 10-12 cactus fruits makes about one cup of pure juice. In our batch below, we extracted three cups of juice from 30 prickly pear fruits.

 

9. For one final assurance that no tiny glochids have made it through your gauntlet of spine abatement, you may filter your final juice through cheese cloth or a coffee filter into a clean pot.

 

 

Pour your liquid “Ruby Nectar” cactus juice into glasses and enjoy.

10. Pour your pure cactus juice into glasses and enjoy! Some people prefer to add a little agave nectar for a sweeter drink, but we just add some ice during summer months, and serve in wine glasses to showcase the beauty of the beverage. Once we accidentally made cactus “wine” when we left a batch in the refrigerator during an extended expedition out of the country, and my husband relished it. He likened it to red apple jack.

 

 

For a variation, mix prickly pear juice with equal parts of fresh lemonade, or add a little lime juice, some freshly grated ginger, and a dash of agave nectar. You may also want to indulge in a country-wide passion for prickly pear margaritas using your juice extract.

 

11. You may recycle the seed-filled pulp of the fruits (for compost, or to feed critters that eat fruit; desert tortoise are especially fond of the fruits), or use the pulp for other recipes. Be aware that the pulp will be filled with hard seeds, and separating the two takes time. This recipe is designed specifically for juice extraction; if you want to use the pulp for food recipes, follow the above tips through freezing. As the prickly pears begin to defrost, their skins will slip off easily. Slit each fruit in half lengthwise with a knife and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. It takes about 8 – 10 prickly pears to get 1 cup of fruit.

However you decide to use these bountiful gifts from the desert, enjoy their taste, their color, and their extraordinary health benefits (see my previous post, The Magic of Prickly Pear Cactus). Bon appetite!