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.


Robin will help you plan YOUR yard — including identifying
your plants…both native and exotic,
and recommending new problem-solving plants and ideas,
from pathways to yard design!


Do you long to know more about your own yard and property? Would you like to walk through your yard/property alongside a plant expert to identify any plants you don’t know, both native and non-native, and get ideas for other plants that would thrive in your yard? Would you like to get suggestions about planting hardy, drought-tolerant, attractive, desert-friendly plants, including trees, shrubs, and perennials that can help you reach your highest dreams for your property?


Landscape planning with views in mind

Landscape planning with views in mind

If you want to achieve your goals for enjoying your yard to its fullest potential without having to contract an expensive landscape architect, consider inviting botanist Robin Kobaly into your yard for a personal consultation. Robin will help you appreciate and identify what you already have, and suggest what plants, pathways, or other structures you could incorporate into your landscape to solve issues you may have with landscaping, views, privacy, wind, hot walls, soil challenges, or problem spots. Robin will share easy, concrete steps to help you successfully plan out a functional, sustainable, low-maintenance, attractive landscape plan to empower you in creating your own dream yard – yourself!


Robin identifies yard plants, and shares traditional and modern uses of native plants.




Robin will bring plenty of supporting materials to help you envision your yard’s potential, and supply photos of suggested plants to fit your yard’s needs. She will suggest a variety of methods that are easy but effective in achieving a landscape plan that suits your individual desires, personality, passions, moods, entertainment essentials, as well as considerations if you have children or pets, while providing suggestions to help you solve persistent problems on your property. Robin also can share homemade remedies that you can easily make yourself to solve common garden problems such as powdery mildew, insect attacks, rabbit munching, etc.




Imagining a new backyard plan


Your yard consultation will normally last 2-3 hours, during which Robin will answer your questions, offer ideas about how to plan your yard to achieve your dreams and desires, present ideas about what plants would do well on your property to achieve those goals (and where you can buy those plants), and give you valuable tips on irrigation for success. She will share secrets about how you can discover your best approach for getting the most enjoyment from your yard by knowing what to focus on to achieve great results. Robin will also identify all the native plants you may have on your property, and introduce you to some of your native plants’ special qualities and uses that you can incorporate into your own life.



Making yard plans with Robin

Creating yard plans with Robin

The fee for this personal yard consultation is based on yard acreage and distance for travel. Please call for a quote for this service on your yard or property. We are excited to meet you and your yard, and to discuss and brainstorm your dreams and goals for your yard. We love helping people get excited about reaching the potential of their yard. This is a very fun experience for both of us!

 To discuss your personal yard consultation, call (760) 363-1166 or email for a quote and to schedule a fun journey into your own yard through the eyes and experience of a seasoned botanist, Robin Kobaly.


Planting in Summer?

Planting in fall or early spring is always your best bet…but what if you get a potted plant in summer? Should you wait until fall to plant it?

We are told repeatedly to plant either in the fall or early spring in desert areas (I myself encourage this in my classes and lectures). Summer planting is to be avoided like the plague. But what do we do if we end up getting a plant just before summer, or worse yet, in the middle of summer? Should we plant that potted specimen during a heat wave, or keep it in its pot until fall when the air is cooler, the soil is cooler, and the sun is less intense? This can be a gut-wrenching decision for gardeners who want to do the right thing, but worry about subjecting their new plant to either the ravages of the extreme heat and intense sun if planted in the ground in summer, or to the poor prospects of a plant surviving a desert summer in a black pot with hot roots and wet soil. Hmmm…which is harder on a young plant: hot soil in the ground or hot soil in a pot?

Black pots heat up fast in the sun, and hot roots are never happy roots. Even worse for our southwest native plants are excessively hot, wet roots–often resulting in root rot and death.

I have had this discussion with many of my gardening friends who are experts…those who are professional nursery growers themselves. They all wince when they think about planting in summer in the desert, but they tend to agree that of the two bad choices, the best option is to go ahead and put the plant into the ground, installing a special protective shield for the plant during summer plantings.

We are advised to not plant in hot summer months for many reasons: plants require more water in their first and subsequent years when planted in summer instead of fall or spring, they may succumb to root rot if the soil is kept moist when the soil is very hot, and plants may grow slower than if they had been planted in fall or spring. However, there is a real danger of the plant not surviving the summer at all in a pot. All plants, but especially southwest native plants, hate for their roots to be hot if the soil is wet. Our native southwest plants are adapted to go dormant in summer when soils are dry, so their roots are used to being dry when it is hot. In a pot however, especially a black pot, the soil and roots heat up even more than if the plant were in the ground, and to compensate, we may have to water the plant almost daily to keep the roots from overheating and drying out beyond their tolerance. However, extremely hot, wet soils are a breeding ground for fungus and bacteria, which can proliferate in these conditions and overwhelm the roots to the point of root rot and sudden death.

Plant roots that are buried in the ground, even when exposed to the same air temperature as a potted plant nearby, are living in a soil environment that is not nearly as hot as the plant sitting next to it, but above-ground, in a pot. One way to lessen the impacts of this “black pot syndrome” is to put the black-potted plant into a bigger ceramic or non-black pot to shield the roots from the heat of the direct sun. This definitely helps, but I have still had some potted plants succumb to summer heat as I waited until fall to plant them. Our fall planting window in southern California usually this doesn’t arrive until the first of November–which is a long wait if you acquired a plant in summer.

If you plant in summer in the desert, install a shade screen on the sunny (south) side of your plant to provide day-long shade all summer.

If you have a potted plant you have adopted just as summer sets in, here is a suggestion for planting during the heat to give it the best chance of success: immediately after planting, install a shade barrier on the south (sunny) side of the plant using three stakes in a “V” shape, either made of wood, metal, or PVC pipe sections. Use stakes tall enough to cast a shade onto the entire plant. Onto these three stakes, attach shade cloth with either twist ties or a stapler, so the plant receives shade most of the day as the sun moves across it. Install the “V” middle-point as close as possible to the plant to give it as much shade as possible. Check your shade screen throughout the day to check its positioning, and pull the sides in closer if needed to cast shade onto your new planting. Do not put shade cloth over the plant, as the cloth will trap heat under it and heat up the plant even more. A large rock placed on the sunny (south) side of the plant also helps your plant to stay happier. The rock will shade the ground next to the roots, and retain moisture longer under it. The companion rock also helps to shade the plant, and can even encourage some dew to form and drip off the rock as cool night air condenses on the rock still warm from the day’s sun.

Figuring out how often to water a newly installed plant during summer is a delicate situation as well–too wet, and it rots; too dry, and it suffers. The root ball needs to be kept moist, but wet soil at the surface where soils are very hot can cause excessive growth of bacteria and harmful fungi, resulting in root rot and killing your plant. The soil needs to be kept moist about 3 inches below the surface, but keeping the soil continuously wet at the surface can be detrimental.  Checking soil moisture is helpful here: either use an inexpensive moisture meter (less that $9 at gardening stores), or you can use an old screwdriver to dig a small hole to a depth of about 2-3”. Check for moisture at the bottom of the hole. After watering, if no moisture has reached the bottom of your test hole, keep watering. Use a new hole to recheck moisture with your meter or hole after watering again. Allow the soil in the top 2-3 inches to dry out between watering the newly installed plant.

Moisture Meter-Basketbush Sumac-1062-web

Moisture meters are a great tool in helping you check soil moisture to determine when and how long to irrigate your plants. They are inexpensive and easy to use (and fun to use all around your yard to check soil moisture after you water).

I’m writing this article now because several months ago I decided to wait until fall to plant a very special native plant I have wanted for years–Yerba Santa, which a fellow botanist had gifted to me. It has been thriving for three months in the pot…that is until we had a 118 degree day in the midst of weeks of over 100 degree weather with extreme humidity. The Yerba Santa has taken a nose dive, even though I have had the pot itself shaded. I lament now not planting it even though summer was setting in when I received it, since I fear I have now lost the treasured plant. As a rule of thumb, plants that cannot tolerate wet soil during summer (which include some of our southwest native plants), should not be planted in summer even if the above measures are followed. Examples of these plants that hate summer water and need dry soils during summer include Ceanothus (California Lilac), Fremontodendron (Flannelbush),  Arctostaphylos (Manzanita), and Trichostema (Wooly Blue Curls). For this reason, the easiest plants to get established in the summer are those that can tolerate year-round moisture.

I’ll never know for certain if my Yerba Santa would have survived the heat in the ground during this excessive heat wave, but I know for sure it hated being in the pot as summer put its burning fangs around my tender plant. Hopefully these tips can help you can avoid this sad experience.

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