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Weeds or Edible Desert Plants?
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Lynn Cordova
Not food for people, right? Wrong. Before you get out the weed whacker or your gloves and trash bags to clear your lawn of green pests again, consider this. If you knew weeds in your yard tasted better than $1.29-a-head lettuce or 79-cents-a pound spinach, would you still put them in the garbage?
Drawing by Lynn Cordova
Naturalists and survivalists eat many different plants we consider weeds. John Green is a volunteer naturalist at the Wilderness Park Museum who has spent years cataloging local plant life. Barbara Bilbo, a physical geographer, is an authority on edible desert plants. They know these plants have fed desert peoples for centuries. Then how do we find out about what people of today can eat?
Naturalist John Green is a very good resource for beginning to learn about identifying edibles. The Wilderness Park Museum at 5800 Transmountain Road has a nature trail Green designed to show the bounty of native desert plants. His self-guided tour booklet. "Natural History of the South Nature Trail" is a $2 bargain. In the booklet he describes the history of each plant identified on the trail as a food source. Best of all, Green shows us the plants we shouldn't eat, such as the poisonous jimson weed or thorn apple, prickly poppy seeds and desert tobacco.
On your tour of the wilderness trail, you will begin to notice what the most abundant food there is in the desert -- grass. Green points out four different kinds in the area; plains love grass, bristlegrass, bluestems and Indian rice grass. Green says the Indians who gathered grass seeds probably collected whatever was available and combined them for a variety of tastes. If we were hungry enough, we would probably have the patience it takes to collect seeds all day, pound and rinse the seeds to remove the husks and have a cup or so of mush to eat, use as thickener for stew or make into bread.
Bilbo says the most important grass to the Indians was Indian rice grass. This spindly gray-green plant has tiny seeds heads in the flowers at the end of the stems. The seeds are about the size of a pencil dot. To harvest the seeds the Indian women would pick the plants and toss them onto light-colored cloth. Then they would burn off the stems and collect the seeds. Bilbo says they would then pound and leach the seeds to make a light gray mush or bake it into bread. It was the equivalent of today's wheat.
An easier plant to harvest for seeds is any of the species of amaranth, which grows in vacant lots and yards in our area. Other names for it are quelites, careless weed, pigweed or redroot. You can spot the 2-to 31/2 food plant by the tassel at its top. Bilbo said it would take about a half-day of gathering for a group to collect about 2 cups of seeds.
Modern agriculture grows amaranth as a domesticated crop. Research has shown that it has a higher percentage of protein (16-18%) which is 2-4% higher than that of corn or wheat. Amaranth supplies amino acids not made by the human body. It can be combined with corn or wheat flour to complete the amino acids of both for a protein equal in quality to eggs. With no cholesterol! It is available in products in some grocery stores in our area as breakfast cereal, crackers and cookies.
Unlike other plants used for grain, amaranth has leaves, which can be prepared like spinach or eaten raw in salads. The leaves are rich in vitamin A and C, riboflavin and folic acid.
Manuela Dominguez, a retired cook for the El Paso Independent Schools who grew up in the Mesilla Valley, remembers going with her mother and her grandmother to pick quelites. Then they would prepare them like spinach or add them to stew. Another variation of preparation is to lightly fry in oil with onion and tomato and to add red pepper flakes to taste. Lambs quarter, sow thistle and dock can be prepared the same way. Tumbleweeds, when they are 2 to 3 inches of diameter, or the buds of the mature plants, can be chopped and eaten in salads.
These are just a few of the most common weeds which grow naturally in our area. Once you learn to identify them, you can use these plants to add variety to your menus. Who would ever think you could be known as a weed eater?