Echinocereus Engelmannii, Hedgehog Cactus, Papago Park, AZ, 2019
While the hedgehog cactus may not bear the most desirable fruits of the Arizona desert, it is indeed extremely edible and nutritious. The fruits and seeds contain impressively high amounts of vitamin C, while the pulp contains traces of antibiotics which can be mixed into a helpful poultice for skin lacerations, burns, and other surface trauma.

Eriogonum Fasciculatum, California Buckwheat, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
The California buckwheat has an impressively long list of medicinal applications, including treating headache, stomachache, diarrhea, bleeding, and wounds. For example, the root can be pounded into a powdered poultice and applied to lacerations as a type of antibiotic bandage, or a decoction can be made from root and water to treat colds and sore throat.

Abronia Villosa, Desert Sand-Verbena, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017

This sand-verbena is commonly found creeping along the desert floor near creosote bush in a wide elevation range from sea level to about 8,200 feet. Two different poultices can be made from different parts of the plant. The first can be made from flowers and leaves, which can then be applied on the skin to reduce swelling and pain from burns. The second poultice can be made from the root, which is then used to ease pain caused by skin lacerations.

Carnegiea Gigantea, Crested Saguaro, Saguaro National Park, AZ, 2018

Reaching heights up to fifty feet tall and ages up to one hundred and fifty years old, the saguaro holds its status firmly as the largest cactus in the United States. As such, it is of no surprise that it’s also one of the most useful of all plants growing in Arizona. The fruits can be eaten raw, cooked into an edible gruel or syrup, or they can be fermented into an intoxicating beverage. The seeds, which contain high levels of vitamin C, can be gathered and stored for long periods of time to be eaten later. The woody ribs from the dry skeletons are extremely strong and useful as building materials and first aid splints. Whether making candles, chicken feed, medicine, food, or alcohol, the uses of this giant saguaro go on extensively.

Ephedra Trifurca, Longleaf Ephedra, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
The ephedra genus has some of the oldest known medicinal and ceremonial uses documented. In the Shanidar caves of modern Iraq, 40,000 to 60,000 year old Neanderthal remains have been found resting peacefully with the ephedra plant clutched to their chests. It is believed they placed this ephedra with the deceased as a type of guide for their last journey into the spiritual realm. Similar ceremonies are evident with the Tamang people in Nepal, where they cremate their dead with dried bundles of the ephedra burning.

Marcgravia sp, Shingle Plant, Costa Rica, 2019
The upward growing marcgravia can be found flourishing in particularly moist environments throughout Costa Rica, reaching heights of up to six feet tall while producing beautifully hanging flowers. Some species produce small edible fruits, similar to strawberries. As for medicinal applications, the leaves and roots can be used to treat headache, toothache, wounds, diarrhea, and syphilis. When in need of drinking water, the thick stems can be cut and harvested of their fluid.

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Organ Pipe Cactus, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ, 2018
As the global climate warmed at the end of the last Ice Age, this organ pipe cactus slowly migrated north from its warm, dry tropics, up to the Sonoran Desert, arriving in Arizona only 3,500 years ago. It is a very picky cactus, as it only thrives in extremely warm climates with south facing rocky slopes. This likely explains why dense populations are only found in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument area, along with a few other select locations in Northern Mexico. Even so, it bears fairly large fruit for its body size, and holds the reputation as one of the most delicious of the Sonoran Desert.

Baileya Multiradiata, Desert Marigold, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
Marigolds are found almost everywhere in the world. They grow easily, bloom reliably, and have few insect and disease problems. More importantly, they are very useful for medicinal purposes, such as treating headaches, wounds and bleeding, toothache, swelling, as an anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory, and for strengthening the heart.

Salvia Columbariae, Chia. Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
This low growing chia produces some of the most nutritiously rich seeds known. From healing diabetes to supporting the heart and digestive system, chia seeds are believed to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet.


edible and medicinal plants growing throughout the southwest

Marking Useful Plants, Superstition Mountains, AZ, 2018
Yerba Santa, Globemallow, Dudleya, Ephedra, Elephant Tree, Blue Palo Verde, Barrel Cactus, Saguaro, Cholla, Prickly Pear, Senna, Mesquite, Whipple Cholla, Desert Christmas Cactus, Fishhook Cactus.

Yucca Brevifolia, Joshua Tree, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
This iconic yucca of Joshua Tree National Park has many edible parts, along with many household and survival uses. The flower buds, before opening, can be parboiled in salt water to remove the bitterness, drained and then cooked again and served like cauliflower. The opened flowers are rich in sugar and can be roasted and eaten as a type of candy. The fruits can be roasted, then formed into cakes and dried for later use. The root can be boiled or roasted, and the seeds can be eaten raw. As for everyday uses, a fiber obtained from the leaves can be made into rope, baskets, sandals, clothing and other necessary materials.

Larrea Tridentata, Creosote, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
The sacred creosote bush can be easily found covering dry plains and mesas throughout the deserts of the southwest. Known as the “plant that cures everything,” creosote often symbolizes a long life full of knowledge and good health, among an infinite list of medicinal applications.

Ryan Parra Photography

Lycium Andersonii, Wolfberry, Superstition Mountains, AZ, 2021
The small blueberry-sized fruits of this desert wolfberry can be eaten raw or cooked, or can even be dried to be eaten later, similar to a raisin. Medicinally, the fruits are an impressive source of vitamins A, C, and E, and are uniquely high in essential fatty acids, which is rare for fruit. Current research is underway on the plants ability to halt or even revers the growth of cancer.

Juniperus Deppeana, Alligator Juniper, Prescott National Forest, AZ, 2021
Not only is this impressive juniper the oldest growing Arizona species in the juniperus genus, reaching ages up to 1,400 years old, but it also has the most unique and distinctive bark growth out of its family, taking similar form to alligator skin. It bears an impressively large number of fruits, and while they are edible and nutritious, they are not the most palatable. For consumption, they can be eaten raw or cooked.

Blechnum Falciforme, Fern, Costa Rica, 2019
Thought of as one of the oldest plants in the world, fossils of ferns have been discovered dating back one hundred million years before the existence of dinosaurs. Even more unique, the fern baffled observers for thousands of years as to how it propagated, as it doesn’t produce flowers nor seeds. This understandably resulted in years of mystery and magic associated with the fern, especially during the Renaissance period, with Shakespeare even writing about the power of fern seeds helping thieves to “walk invisibly.” It has since been discovered that ferns propagate by releasing spores into the air, which can then travel for thousands of miles, even crossing oceans. Ferns truly are some of the oldest, most well-established masters of their environment.

Theobroma Cacao, Cacao Tree, Costa Rica, 2021
The history of the cacao tree and chocolate industry in Costa Rica is both fascinating and alarming. Up until the 1930s, the cacao bean was used by the indigenous as a currency, just as many other pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations did. Then, in the 1970s, just as cacao was Costa Rica’s leading export, a monilia fungus destroyed 80% of the cacao trees across the country. Through the production of new strains immune to this fungus, the cacao tree once again thrives throughout the Costa Rica landscape, with its prized bean still being made into a ritualistic drink used in ceremonies and celebrations. 

Eriodictyon Trichocalyx, Yerba Santa, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
Yerba Santa, meaning “holy herb,” is extremely rich in flavonoids which can be used in a wide range of medicinal applications. A tea made from the leaves is a very effective decongestant and allergy reliever, as well as a treatment for colds and coughs. A poultice from the leaves can be applied to the skin to treat cuts and lacerations, sprains, muscle pains, and insect bites.

Psychotria Poeppigiana, Hot Lips, Costa Rica, 2021
While controversially referred to as “hot lips” or “hooker lips,” this endangered poeppigiana growing throughout South America can be used for a number of issues, including headache, earache, muscle pain, colds, and whooping cough. I have even heard whispers of its magical powers being used as a talisman for good luck in hunting rituals.

Chilopsis Linearis, Desert Willow, Joshua Tree National Park, CA, 2017
With powerful antibacterial properties, the flowers and bark can be used in a tea to help with severe cough, sore throat, and fever. The same tea can also help treat heartburn, stomach pains, diarrhea, cramps, bladder infections, and dandruff.

Coriolus Versicolor, Turkey Tail Mushroom, Costa Rica, 2020
This immune boosting turkey tail fungus found growing all throughout the world has become a popular choice for cancer patients seeking a magical cure. Even if complete remission isn’t feasible on its own, this fungus can at least be used as an adjuvant with chemotherapy treatment in order to manage gastric, colon, and colorectal cancer.