We tend to think of the plants of the desert as hostile—embittered by moisture-sapping winds and searing heat, shaped into twisted forms whose spines threaten pain for any who draw too near. But many of the native plants of southern Arizona have a gentler side, if only we’d get to know them. Their spines can be subdued with tongs and thick gloves; struck by morning light, their blossoms are alarmingly beautiful; and many harbor nutrients and flavors that can embellish our plates and enrich our palates with the colorful flavors of wild Arizona.
This is the first in a series of articles focused on wild plants that you can forage and eat. Follow along as we explore the wilds of Baja Arizona.
Follow the winding Catalina Highway toward the village of Summerhaven, or climb on foot through any of the canyon trails out of the Tucson valley and into the mountains. Watch for the first trees; not saguaros but dark-leaved evergreen and deciduous trees, staining the mountainside in dark patches and filling gullies and canyons, clustered around areas where water finds its way after rainfall.
In Arizona, you can pick wild berries year round. The alligator juniper will be one of the first evergreen trees that you encounter as you rise out of the valley. With scaly, slate grey checkerboard bark, the tree with a trunk like alligator skin stands out from among its fellow evergreens. The alligator juniper typically grows between 4,000 and 8,000 feet in elevation in dry areas of upland mountains, in the company of piñons, ponderosas, oaks, and other junipers.
The largest of all southwestern junipers, the alligator juniper can extend between 40 and 65 feet in height. Dark blue-green scaly leaves hang in clustered wisps from the ends of notched branches and twigs, where ½-inch diameter blue-green berries cluster.
The male plant produces somewhat inconspicuous ½-inch-diameter cones, while the female plant produces edible berries that taste strongly of juniper and can be picked directly off the tree and consumed raw or steamed. A note of caution: the pollen contained in cones on the male plant is a moderate allergen.
Juniper berries can complement the robust flavors of many red meats, but the juniper flavor is strong in each berry, so limit berries to four to eight per pound of meat. The berries also can be mixed in with fruit dishes, and the juniper flavor blends well with spices like thyme, sage, oregano, bay leaves, onions, and garlic.
The Zuni people of New Mexico traditionally used the berries to flavor teas and incense, or as add-ins for cornbread and sausages. Zuni children used the resin of alligator juniper wood as chewing gum.
Wild animals also eat the berries and use the trees for shelter and nest sites. Hummingbirds, woodpeckers, flycatchers, Mexican jays, and sparrows are some of the species that breed among junipers, while wild turkeys and deer also feed on the berries. If you keep a lookout for the forest-dwellers who are also drawn to the juniper woodlands, your berry-picking journey may yield more than a flavorful meal supplement.