Wild Foods of Tucson

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Our Sonoran desert has one of the most varied selections of wild foods anywhere on the planet.  Although our diversity is perhaps rivaled by the plentitude of other locales this same diversity provides a safety net of local food resources.  As one “crop” may “fail” others may be in greater abundance in any particular season.  The availability of wild foods may have a variety of factors involved including, moisture, sunlight, temperature, soil conditions, animal/insect interactions, human factors (multitudinous), and many more unknown factors.

Following is a list of wild or naturalized plants found in or near the Tucson basin which serve as food.  I have listed these foods according to seasonal availability.  You will, however, find some of these foods outside of their listed season, occasionally.  Please enjoy responsibly and continue scrolling down to read a list of important Guidelines for Wild Food Harvesting.  You will also find a list of recipes below.



(March to mid-June)

Malva  (Malva spp.)

Mustard Greens  (Brassica or Sisymbirum spp.)

Atriplex wrightii – Capita

Dandelion leaf, flower  (Taraxacum officinale)

Sow Thistle leaf, flower  (Sonchus oleraceus)

Monkey flower/Basomari leaves  (Mimulus guttatus)

Cañaigre/Red Dock leaf  (Rumex hymenosepalus)

Curly Dock/Lengua de Vaca leaves  (Rumex crispus)

Saltbush/Capita  (Atriplex elegans, A. wrightii)

Fishhook Pincushion Cactus fruit  (Mammillaria spp.)

Cholla buds  (Cylindropuntia spp.)

Scorpion weed leaf  (Phacelia spp.)

Prickly Pear Pads/Nopales  (Opuntia spp.)

Palo Verde seed  (Parkinsonia microphylla)

Wolfberries  (Lycium spp.)

Agave heart/Mescal  (Agave spp.)

Yucca arizonica

Yucca flowers  (Yucca spp.)

Tansy Mustard seed/Pamita  (Descurainia spp.)

Mesquite pods  (Prosopis spp.)

Manzanita berries  (Arctostaphylos spp.)

Wild Oregano  (Monarda spp.)

Cattails pollen  (Typhus spp.)



(mid-June to late September)

Simmondsia sinensis – Jojoba

Jojoba nuts  (Simmondsia sinensis)

Monkey flower/Basomari leaves  (Mimulus guttatus)

Yucca un-ripe fruit  (Yucca spp.)

Amaranth greens/Bledo  (Amaranthus spp.)

Purslane/Verdolagas  (Portulaca oleracea)

Wild Oregano  (Monarda spp.)

Cañaigre/Red Dock flower stalk  (Rumex hymenosepalus)

Ironwood seeds  (Olneya tesota)

Elderberries  (Sambucus mexicana)

Saguaro fruit  (Carnegiea gigantea)

Chia seed  (Salvia columbariae)

Devil’s Claw unripe fruit (Proboscidea parviflora)

Prickly Pear fruit/Tunas  (Opuntia spp.)

Walnuts  (Juglans major)

Barrel Cactus/Biznaga buds  (Ferocactus spp.)

Wild Grape  (Vitis arizoncia)

Hackberries  (Celtis spp.)

Lycium sp. – Wolfberry

Wolfberries  (Lycium spp.)

Yucca fruit  (Yucca spp.)

Mesquite pods  (Prosopis spp.)

Sumac berries  (Rhus trilobata)

Acacia seeds  (Acacia spp.)

Sotol seeds  (Dasylirion wheeleri)



  (late September to early December)

Devil’s Claw seed (Proboscidea parviflora)

Monkey flower/Basomari leaves  (Mimulus guttatus)

Sumac berries  (Rhus trilobata)

Mesquite pods  (Prosopis spp.)

Olea europaea – Olive

Piñon nuts  (Pinus edulis)

Pecans  (Carya illinoiensis)

Olives  (Olea europaea)

Acorns  (Quercus spp.)



  (early December to early March)

Monkey flower/Basomari leaves  (Mimulus guttatus)

Barrel Cactus/Biznaga fruit, seeds  (Ferocactus spp.)

Acorns  (Quercus spp.)

Citrus fruits  (Citrus spp.)

Cañaigre/Red Dock leaf  (Rumex hymenosepalus)

Rumex hymenosepalus – Cañaigre

Malva  (Malva spp.)

Filaree  (Erodium cicutarium)

Mustard Greens  (Brassica or Sisymbirum spp.)

Fishhook Pincushion Cactus fruit  (Mammillaria spp.)





As you travel up Mt Lemmon more and more food choices will begin to appear.  Stay tuned for more posts on mid-to-upper elevation wild food choices and their methods of preparation.


Guidelines for safe, productive and sustainable Wild Food Harvesting:


Guideline #1 for Wild Food Harvesting:

Always have a positive identification for the plant before you begin gathering.


Guideline #2:

Get to know your environment.

Visit the location of your food source throughout the year and view the plant at various stages of growth in order to more accurately gauge its health.  Know the proper season to harvest the plant as food.  Look for potential toxic inputs (agricultural or landscaping chemicals, pet excrement, waste dump, etc.).  Private property?  Public land?  What sort of permission is necessary?


Guideline #3:

Gather only what you need and allow for regeneration of the source.  Encourage reproduction through “cultivation.”


Guideline #4:

Know the proper methods of preparation.  Many of our wild foods are perfectly safe to eat in a variety of ways.  Occasionally, wild foods necessitate a proper method of preparation for your continued health and enjoyment of these foods.

Share the experience with friends and family!



Here are a few recipes from select spring harvests.  Enjoy!


Preparation of Capita, aka Saltbush


We have 2 distinct Saltbush, or Capita, that come up in the spring.  Both of them are annuals.  The one pictured to the right is the more rare of the two (Atriplex

Atriplex wrightii – Capita

wrightii).  A. elegans is far more common as a ‘weed’ throughout Tucson in the spring.  Atriplex spp. are found abundantly throughout the Mediterranean and it is believed to be the plant mentioned in the Book of Job (A. halimus) as eaten by the ‘social outcasts.’  You will also find it referred to as Orach, or French Spinach and it is used to cut the taste of sorrel. One clear identifying characteristic of the Saltbush is the salty flavor of its leaves.  The young, tender leaves of spring are even sweet – very delicious!  You can eat them right there on the spot, or toss them in a salad.  If you prefer your greens cooked, then steam them, sauteé them, add them to soups or stews.  You can

Atriplex elegans – Capita

dry them and store them in a jar or bag in the cupboard for use throughout the year sprinkling them into egg dishes, stews, soups, or whatever you wish.  Another option is to quickly steam them, or blanch them, and bag them once cool for freezer storage.  Once thawed they must be used that day.




Creamed Basomari (Monkey Flower)

Mimulus guttatus – Basómari


This riparian plant has become less common over the latter half of the 20th century to be sure.  It is reliant upon regular surface water in order to stay properly hydrated.  In northern Sonora, where there is still significant ground water by comparison to Tucson, Basomari is still enjoyed as a green throughout the warmer months beginning in early spring.  Gathering up the fresh, non-flowering sprigs (as shown to the left) chop them up fine and add a bit of water, salt, and pepper.  Cook over low heat stirring frequently.  Some prefer to add a bit of cream or butter to improve the texture and flavor of the dish.

Creamed Basómari

Basomari is slightly bitter.  This same process can be employed with a variety of wild greens.  Additionally, Basomari is useful for heat and irritation of the mucous membranes of the throat/larynx/lungs.  Simply chew on some of the fresh plant or a tea or tincture can serve similarly.




Pamita Limonada

In one gallon glass jar combine:

1 cup Pamita seeds  (Descurainia spp.)

Descurainia pinnata – Pamita


1/2 cup sugar

juice of 10 limes

fill to top with water


*Stir and serve cool.  Useful for empacho (stomach ache, stuck feeling in the middle of the gut), and cooling down from excess heat.


Cholla bud Tortillas

*Sorry, I can’t remember the exact proportions of this dish.  I vaguely remember no more than 10-20% cholla bud flour and about the same amount of mesquite flour.  Add water until it’s a proper masa consistency. 

Cholla buds

ground organic corn

ground dry cholla buds

mesquite flour


* combine all dry ingredients and stir well.  add water slowly in order to moisten thoroughly.  mix by hand.  roll into small balls to be flattened out into tortillas.  cook on griddle until lightly golden.

This is a traditional food of the Akimel O’Odham (Gila River Pima).


Stay tuned for more posts on wild food preparations.




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