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Desert Indians : Plants

Indian use of Native Plants

In the desert, Indians found native plants and other natural objects that not only ensured their survival but also formed the foundation for much of their culture. The desert provided food, clothing, tools, weapons, medicine, cooking implements, trade items, toys and games, the means for artistic expression, and spiritual objects that helped define their view of the world. For the many groups of Indians living in the Mojave, the desert was the center of their universe. It was their home.

The Basics for Survival

    Honey Mesquite

    To the casual observer, honey mesquite may present a drab appearance, but it was crucial to the survival of California's desert Indians. The honey mesquite produces a straw-colored pod resembling a stringbean. Mesquite beans have a high nutritional value. The were eaten fresh or dried or were pounded into a meal to make small sun-dried cakes. The meal could also be mixed with water to produce a refreshing drink. Mesquite wood was used as fuel for fires, to make bows and arrows, and to construct homes and roofs. The bark was used for kindling, for sweathouse fires, and to make nets to carry pottery. Women's skirts and baby diapers were fashioned from pounded mesquite bark.

    Pinyon Pine

    The pinyon pine grows at the desert's higher elevations. Pinyons produced pine cones that contain kernels, or nuts, another critical food source for local indians. There was much competition for the pinyon nuts. Rodents and jays also eat the nuts so Indians would harvest the cones while they were still green and then roast them to release the nuts.

    Pine nuts were eaten whole or ground into meal and mixed with water to make a beverage. Finely ground nuts served as baby food. Pinyon branches provided firewood. The bark was used as roofing material in home construction. Pine needles were used in basket-making, and Indians bound the pine needles together with pinyon roots. Pinyon resin, or pitch, was used to glue broken pottery and baskets and to attach projectile points to arrow shafts.

    Oak (Quercus)

    Another critical food plant was the oak. One mature tree could provide 150-300 pounds of acorns over a three year period. Acorns were processed to leach out tannic acid, a bitter-tasting, but non-poisonous substance. Acorns were also stored in woven graneries raised high above the ground to keep them from rodents and other pests. Across the California Desert, Indians considered oak the ideal wood for cooking and heating.

    Indians used acorns to bait animal traps, to make game pieces, and to make tops and other toys. Their high food value made them an important trade item. There are several species of oak in the deserts and foothills. Some species were more highly valued than others, but all produced the life-sustaining acorns.

More Food Plants

Uses of plants for food, medicinal and utility purposes varied throughout the Mojave Desert for the Indians from the Cahuilla, Serrano and Vanyume in the south to the Owens Valley Paiute to the north, the Kawaiisu in the west to the Mohave and Chemehuevi to the east. The plants with minimal local exception were for the most part used in the same ways when available.

Desert Indians depended upon plants for most of their food. They gathered the small, sweet fruit produced by the California fan palm. Jojoba nuts were eaten fresh or ground into meal and made into a beverage. Stalks of the Parry nolina and yucca whipplei (Lord's candle) were harvested and baked in roasting pits lined with hot rocks. Chia seeds were ground into a gruel and taken to provide nourishment on extended journeys. The list is extensive, there was most likely not a plant that the Indians could not make use of in one way or another.

    Medicinal Plants

    Various plants of the desert were used to cure disease and to maintain good health. Creosote was an especially important plant. A tea made from crushed creosote leaves was prized as a general cure all. Today, it is being studied to analyze the beneficial properties of a number of chemicals found within the plant. Chia seeds were used as an eye cleanser. Ground seeds were applied as a poultice to wounds. Twigs of the ephedra (Mormon tea) a common desert shrub, contain a natural form of ephedrine. Boiled in hot water, ephedra was used as a health tonic. Mistletoe berries were ground into a flour and used to treat wounds.

    Plants Used for Tools, Household, and Ceremonial Objects

    Desert plants were the building materials from which desert Indians created many useful objects. Barrel cacti were hollowed out and used for storage or cooking vessels. Joshua tree provided fiber for making sandals and nets. The roots were used in basketry and to produce colorful dyes. Joshua tree branches made excellent quail traps. "Spirit sticks" were fashioned from juniper branches and were used to protect areas where precious supplies of food and water were stored.

source - NPS

Indian use of Pinyon-juniper Woodlands

Archaeological data and ethnographic accounts testify of the importance of resources available in the ...

More about the People

Mohave Indians
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    Owens Valley Paiute
  • Subsistence
    ... abounded in the acorn, made use of this food in a typically California manner, and the Owens Valley Paiute, who, living in the arid Great Basin, utilized the pine nut ...

  • Plant Resources
    None of these sources, however, touches as well on the meaning of plants to the Serrano as does Dorothy Ramon ...

  • Material Culture, Technology
    The Chemehuevi women were skilled basket makers, but made little pottery. Their coiled baskets resembled those of ...

  • Food Preparation
    Although some greens, seeds and berries were eaten fresh, many of the gathered foodstuffs required ...

  • Material Culture, Technology
    The Cahuillas hunted with throwing sticks, clubs, nets, traps, dead falls with seed triggers, spring-poled snares, arrows ...

  • "This is the sense of the desert hills, that there is room enough and time enough. Trees grow to consummate domes; every plant has its perfect work. Noxious weeds such as come up thickly in crowded fields do not flourish in the free spaces. Live long enough with an Indian, and he or the wild things will show you a use for everything that grows in these borders."

    ~ Mary Austin, Shoshone Land - Land of Little Rain

    Black Oak

    Honey Mesquite

    Pinyon Pine

    More about plants:

    Pinyon Pine
    Mature singleleaf pinyon is typically a short tree (20-40 feet (6-12 m) tall), with a rounded to flat-topped crown and multiple, upswept ...

    Mesquite is an extremely hardy, drought-tolerant plant because it can draw water from ...

    California Fan Palm
    ... the Serrano and Cahuilla would set fire to the oases to increase fruit production and remove the sharp-edged fronds from the desert floor. They would use the broad leaves for waterproof shelters and ate the fruit. ...

    ... highly valued for its medicinal properties by desert peoples. It has been used to treat at least ...

    It has always amazed me... the first person that walked into the forest, and come out with a basket.
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