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Native Foods Make A Comeback In Southwest

Lydia Vassar (left) and Deborah Small harvest native fruits and plants from the hills around their homes in North San Diego County.
Jill Replogle
Lydia Vassar (left) and Deborah Small harvest native fruits and plants from the hills around their homes in North San Diego County.
Harvesting Native Foods in the Southwest

Deborah Small and Lydia Vassar spend a lot of time wandering the hillsides and arroyos of northern San Diego County. Today, they’re looking for dried chia flowers. Almost completely ignored for centuries, the seeds of these flowers have become a popular health food product in recent years. They’re rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.

“People have been using it here for thousands of years," Small said. "It was really one of the important staples.”

And Small and Vassar aren’t just on the lookout for chia seeds. During the harvesting trip, they find black and white sage, and prickly pear fruit. There are a wide variety of wild, edible fruits and plants growing in San Diego County - and throughout the southwest - that many of us pass right by.


Several of these foods are making a comeback in grocery stores and farmers markets; some people are rediscovering their hunter-gatherer roots by going out and harvesting themselves.

On a recent sunny morning in Tucson, Arizona, people lined up to have mesquite beans processed by a community mill owned by the organization Desert Harvesters. Mesquite trees grow across the southwest desert: from Texas to southeastern California, as well as northern Mexico.

Mesquite was an essential source of fibers, fuel and food for Native American groups. The sweet, nutty beans can be ground up and made into a flour; mesquite flour has become popular in recent years at Arizona farmers markets and specialty stores.

At a farmers market in Tucson, Bodie Robins had nearly sold out of his pies and cookies made with mesquite flour. He harvests mesquite beans off his land outside of Tucson to make the flour.

“Mesquite is a miracle food," Robins said. "It’s no gluten, high protein, natural occurring sugars, and it’s free - it grows on trees.”


Mesquite’s nutritional properties are what have attracted a lot of people, especially those diagnosed with gluten intolerance and diabetes.

Jeau Allen sells mesquite flour and cactus fruit products through her website "The Mesquitery," and at farmers markets around Arizona.

“The soluble fiber helps to slow down your blood sugar," Allen said. "It basically slows down the release of sugars in your digestive tract.”

While some modern desert-dwellers are just discovering mesquite, for others it was a childhood snack. Ben Aragon grew up in Texas, and now lives in Arizona. He was waiting in line at the Tucson milling event with several bags full of mesquite pods.

"As a boy, my buddies and I, my brothers, we’d have mesquite trees out in the back fields and we’d always eat mesquite pods," Aragon said. "I mean, it’s just a natural thing. We’d sit there and just start chewing on them. It’s almost like sugarcane.”

It wasn't until recently, Aragon said, that he realized the beans were also good for you.

Back in California, Small and Vassar also tout the health and medicinal benefits of many wild foods. Vassar is a member of the Luiseño tribe, and she teaches children about native plants at the Pechanga tribal school in North County.

While we were speaking with her, she spotted a white sage growing next to an agave plant.

“These are kind of dry right now, but we had this growing at the school, and the kids will peel off the stalks when they’re fresh coming out, and eat it, just eat it like celery,” she said, pulling off a small shoot.

Of course, harvesting wild plants may not be a problem if just a few people are doing it, but if certain plants get too popular — or harvesters get too greedy — those plants might not be available for future generations. Small has one solution.

“I’ve got this plant growing on my porch," she said. "We really try to encourage everyone, if people are going to be using them, to plant them if they can.”

After the harvesting trip, in Small's kitchen, she poured deep red prickly pear fruit juice, and dumped bright green prickly pear pads into a blender. She also threw in some other fruit, greens, and herbs from her garden.

The result was a thick, dull green smoothie. It wasn't attractive, but it was delicious.

“It’s really good," Vassar said, taking a swig. "It is, it’s really good.”