What can live for a thousand years, holds the Sonoran Desert together, and has sweet, nectar-filled blossoms and delicious, protein-rich seeds? Ironwood trees, found on warm southern slopes and the low desert lands of Baja Arizona and in the Sonoran bioregion. When in bloom, gorgeous lavender or pink pea-style blossoms blanket leafless gray branches, often as the foothill palo verdes are flowering.
Dry summer is the time to harvest bean-tree pods – ironwood, palo verde, and mesquite – and to welcome the heat, signifying that more harvests are near – specifically, saguaro fruit with the summer rains.
Ironwood seeds are a nutritious desert delectable, with a flavor reminiscent of peanuts. They can be prepared as edamame, sprouted or dry-roasted. All seeds have antinutrients which protect them from predators, so soaking, fermenting, sprouting, and cooking can make them more digestible.
When harvesting desert foods, remember to leave plenty for the other animals, and consider adding ironwood or bean-tree habitat in your neighborhood. Sadly, developers have been known to blade entire ironwood forests and name the streets for them. We can “re-wild” our urban spaces to include ironwoods, so that this keystone species will be around for future generations. In urban neighborhoods, ironwoods and their friends, planted along mulched, rain-welcoming, sculpted basins, create diversity, enduring shade and beauty.
Keep in mind that desert legumes are best harvested before the rainy season to guard against potential unhealthy organisms that grow in more humid conditions.
As you become more connected to this amazing place, give thanks for those who came before us, and share your growing knowledge about desert foods and traditions.
Harvest tightly filled ironwood pods (they should look like over-ripe garden peas). The outer pods will feel somewhat sticky. Simmer whole pods in water for 15 to 20 minutes, or until you see them begin to split open. Drain, sprinkle with a little salt, lime juice, and chile. To eat, pop the seeds into your mouth, warm or cool. They’re especially good with a local mesquite beer or whiskey.
Harvest when pods are dry, before they burst open and fall to the ground. Remove seeds from pods. Soak the dry seeds in water with a little vinegar for a day (to begin the sprouting process and leach out antinutrients). Then drain and sprinkle seeds with chile, garlic, herbs, a little oil if you like, and roast until crunchy in your solar oven. What? No solar oven? In Baja Arizona, with 350 days of sun? What are you waiting for?
Soak dry ironwood seeds for a day, or until you see little points (the sprout) begin to protrude. Rinse and keep damp, repeating several times a day, just as you would any bean sprouts, until the sprouts are about a half-inch long. Remove the tough seed coats, which loosen during sprouting, and use in a stir-fry or another quick-cook dish to preserve their yummy taste and crunch.
Heat fat and fry potatoes and onions. As they brown, add spices. When close to done, add greens and cook to taste. Just before serving add sprouts, gently toss, and cook a minute more. Serve with grated cheese or an egg on top, if desired. ✜
Visit DesertHarvesters.org for more information about harvesting, classes, and events.
Barbara Rose lives in a small solar rammed-earth home at Bean Tree Farm in Tucson. Bean Tree Farm supplies local desert foods and education to the community. Visit BeanTreeFarm.com.