In the shimmering heat of June, saguaro fruits ripen and split. Mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde beans dry on the tree. All of Baja Arizona is preparing for the monsoon.
It’s a waiting time, sure. But it’s also a delicious time. As native plants ready their seeds for a soaking, many become ripe for harvesting by humans. They’re ready for cooking or for planting. Wait until after the summer rains break, though, and many become host to a dangerous mold called aflatoxin.
That’s why Desert Harvesters has shifted its programming to June, before the rains arrive. This June, Desert Harvesters will offer a number of workshops—from native-tree harvesting to mesquite milling—to help Baja Arizonans take advantage of the season.
The most famous of our local harvests might be mesquite, but Brad Lancaster of Desert Harvesters cautions us not to overlook all the other nutritious and tasty foods growing right out the back door. “It’s not just mesquite,” he says. “Mesquite is just the gateway food.” A native tree harvesting class leaving the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market on Thursday, June 18—on foot at 5 p.m. and by bike at 6 p.m.—will teach Tucsonans to pick not only mesquite pods, but also palo verde, ironwood, and canyon hackberry.
—and planting your own.
If this is the season you’ve decided to tackle mesquite harvesting, don’t forget: Not all pods are created equal. Be sure to taste the pod before you start harvesting from a given tree—bad pod will mean foul-tasting product. You don’t need to shell the mesquite beans; simply pluck the pod from the tree and place it in your mouth, perhaps lightly chewing or sucking to fully taste the flavor. (Never harvest mesquite beans from the ground, as they could be contaminated.) Any chalkiness, bitterness, or a drying or slight burning sensation in your mouth or throat should be a red flag. “If it has any of those to any degree, it’s a bad tree,” says Lancaster.
Chalky-tasting mesquites are usually not native to the area; the landscape industry often plants non-native South American mesquites (or hybrids) in Sonoran yards. Desert Harvesters recommends harvesting from the native velvet mesquite variety, as well as the screwbean and honey mesquite varieties.
If you find a good tree, Lancaster suggests, mark it on a map for next season. Or, even better, plant some of its seeds for the coming years. “Plant the seed directly where you want the tree to grow,” Lancaster says. “This will be the fastest growth, and it’s free.”
“We want this to be core,” Lancaster says. “Desert Harvesters is not about going out into the desert and harvesting. We’re about planting the best plants in the places we live, along our streets, at our homes, so that we are daily reunited with the flora and fauna of the desert and what makes this place so rich.”
If you’re planting native seeds, you’ll want to spend the weeks leading up to the monsoon preparing a water-harvesting structure, to capture rains from the monsoon when it finally arrives.
Lancaster calls this “planting the rain.” Compared with the Mojave and the Chihuahua, he says, the Sonoran is “barely a desert. We have two rainy seasons instead of one. That’s why we always push, ‘Plant the rain first.’” ✜
Kati Standefer writes from Exo Roast Company and teaches community writing classes from her kitchen table in Tucson.