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Edible and Medicinal Plants at Joshua Tree National Park: Juniper-Pinyon Woodland

by: Jill Richardson

Sun Apr 07, 2013 at 21:56:54 PM PDT

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I spent this past weekend camping at Joshua Tree National Park, and it provided a fascinating look at edible and medicinal plants in two different ecosystems: Juniper-Pinyon Woodland and the Mojave Desert. The park also spans into the Sonoran Desert, but I did not visit that area.

Join me on a quick tour of the plants of Southern California's Juniper-Pinyon Woodland!

A Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

(Just a note: I'm pointing out edible and medicinal plants, but you're not allowed to collect or eat the plants within the National Park.)

Jill Richardson :: Edible and Medicinal Plants at Joshua Tree National Park: Juniper-Pinyon Woodland
Joshua Tree National Park is, of course, named after the Joshua Tree, Yucca brevifolia. This unique looking plant is not a tree at all, but a species of yucca. We camped in the northwest corner of the park in a campground called Black Rock, at 4000 ft above sea level. The area was entirely dominated by Joshua Trees. Like this one, next to our camp site:

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree in bloom - look for large spikes of creamy white flowers.

Even more exciting to me was another species of yucca, Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera). It's sometimes called Spanish Bayonet - and the pointy leaves are SHARP. Both yucca species were flowing during our visit.

Mojave Yucca

Mojave Yucca flowers

Mojave Yucca has an amazing relationship with a species of moth. The moth's larvae need to eat yucca seeds, so the moth lays a few eggs on each yucca flower. Then she takes a bunch of pollen and stuffs it into the pistil, pollinating the flower and ensuring a food source for her young. She lays more than a hundred eggs total, but if she gets lazy and lays them all on a single flower, the yucca plant will kill that flower. So instead, she distributes them among many flowers so that each flower produces some viable seeds even after the moth larvae have eaten their fill.

Mojave Yucca

The indigenous people of Southern California used each mojave yucca plant for a number of purposes. The flowers and the stalk were eaten as food, the roots were used as soap, and the leaves were used for cordage. (There's another related species in Southern California, Hesperoyucca whipplei, also known as Our Lord's Candle, and it was used mostly the same way. The one difference is that the roots were not used as soap.)

I knew we were going to be near juniper-pinyon woodland, and I was extremely excited to see both juniper and single-leaf pinyon pines. But when we got to our camp site and looked around, I could not see anything that looked like a coniferous forest! Here's a view of the area:

I had no idea that I was actually in a coniferous forest until I went to fetch water the first morning and ran into an enormous California Juniper tree (Juniperus californica) right next to the faucet!

These babies are in the Cypress Family, which means they are conifers (cone-bearing plants with naked seeds). The tiny "cones" look like little blue berries. They are about the same size as blueberries, in fact.

Juniper leaves. It almost looks like they have scales.

A parasite, mistletoe, on the juniper

California Junipers are found from 1500 to 5000 feet in altitude in high desert or desert transition areas. They are often multi-trunked and typically less than 20 feet in height. They are dioecious, meaning that some trees are males and some are females.

So what are they good for? Well, the berries are used in gin, of course, but they are also edible. (I plan to ask the local Native American tribe how they were eaten and I'll follow up on the blog if I get an answer.)

Both the leaves and the berries are also medicinal. They are used internally for urinary tract infections and externally for psoriasis and eczema. Juniper is also carminative, which means - and I'm sorry I don't have a better way to say this - it helps you fart. So if you've got gas, juniper's one option to help you.

You should not use juniper if you are pregnant or if you have acute inflammation of the kidneys.

You've almost certainly heard of chia pets, but you've likely also heard that chia seeds are a fantastic health food. And they're delicious. The local species of chia is not the same one you get in health food stores, but it's related. The commercially sold one is Salvia hispanica. Ours is Salvia columbariae. And if you're up on your Latin plant names, you have already figured out that both chias are species of sage.

I got very excited when I found this out. Then I began to wonder, why don't we eat the seeds of all of our sage species? Black sage and white sage are certainly more abundant than chia! Well, this explains why chia is so highly prized above the others:

  • White sage seeds are 8 percent water, 10 percent protein, 12 percent fat, and 65 percent carbs. 100g are 410 calories.
  • Black sage seeds are 9 percent water, 8 percent protein, 9 percent fat, and 70 percent carbs. 100g are 394 calories.
  • Purple sage seeds are 11 percent water, 15 percent protein, 11 percent fat, and 59 percent carbs. 100g are 395 calories.
  • Our local chia seeds are 8 percent water, 22 percent protein, 20 percent fat, and a mere 45 percent carbs. 100g are 448 calories.

If our chia is anything like the commercially sold chia, then the fat content includes a decent amount of omega-3s, too!

For months, I've been looking and looking and looking for chia wherever I go. It's supposed to grow in just about every ecosystem in southern California. But I hadn't found it before this weekend. I set off for a short hike near our campsite and almost immediately, I found it!


See how it's tiny and easy to miss?

This one's a bit taller

Chia foliage

Prior to the European conquest in California, chia was a major food source. Native Americans would gather the seeds by beating the plants with seed beaters into large-mouthed baskets. Some of the seeds would scatter on the ground, and they would grow the next year's crop of chia. Nowadays, nobody goes out with seed beaters to gather chia seeds, so the seeds aren't scattered about like they once were.

Pinyon Pines
Another major native food was pine nuts. Nowadays, they sell for more than $30/lb if you're shopping organic at the store, so I'd love to find a local source of them that I could gather for free. Of course, you can't do that in a park like Joshua Tree, but step one is learning what the tree looks like, right?

Since the area around the campsite so little resembled what I think of when I think "pine forest," I had basically given up on finding a single-leaf pinyon pine, Pinus monophylla, when I ran into one on a hike!

Single-leaf pinyon pine

As you can see, the needles are short and a bit fat. The cones of this tree are also short and fat. This tree grows in the high desert and desert transition areas above 2500 feet. The reason it's called a "single-leaf" pine is because most pine species grow their needles grouped together in small bunches of 2-5 needles apiece. One way to tell which species of pine you're looking at is by counting the number of needles in each cluster. Our other species of pinyon pine has four needles per cluster, for example. But this tree just has single needles, no clusters at all.

By the way, the time for pine nut collecting is in July, and I'd rather pay $30/lb for pine nuts at the store than visit the desert in July! In the meantime, pine needles can be used as tea. I'm told they are high in vitamin C.

Single-leaf pinyon pine

There was one more useful gymnosperm around the campsite: Ephedra, a.k.a. Mormon Tea. (A gymnosperm is a plant that produces naked seeds, like pines, cypress trees, and ephedras.) I spent a whole day walking past them without realizing that's what they were. These funny looking plants have needle-like stems with "joints" every few inches. Each joint is accompanied by a few tiny nodules that are actually the plant's leaves! Some of the plants also had tiny little seed-cones, which were in between the size of a grain of rice and a raisin.


Ephedra, with Joshua Tree in the background

Ephedra close-up. You can see the two tiny nodules that are actually leaves in the center of the picture.

Teeny little seed cones

This plant is used medicinally, more or less like Sudafed. According to Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest by Charles W. Kane, "Even though our western Mormon tea contains no ephedrine and only traces of pseudoephedrin, the plant still is useful as a sinus passage decongestant, and in a limited capacity, as a bronchial dilator. Apparently, Mormon tea contains enough "sub-ephedrines" to make this effect noticeable." It's also used for urinary tract irritation and upper gastric tract irritation. Kane cautions against using this too much during pregnancy.

The Black Rock campground had no shortage of cacti. Some were flowering and would soon produce fruit. Young prickly pear pads - and I'd imagine beavertail pads - are edible, as are the fruits. The inside of these cacti, as well as the gum of the jumping cholla cactus, are useful on sunburns (similar to aloe). The roots of chollas can be used medicinally as well, although I like to keep my distance from chollas. Barrel cacti are useful when one is in need of water in the desert. Just cut the top off the cactus to get to the water.

Some sort of cholla

Beavertail cactus

Beavertail cactus flower

Beavertail cactus, with flower

Possibly a hedgehog cactus?

The Non-Edibles
We saw a few other plants worth mentioning, even though you can't eat them.

Many plants in the park just looked like this:

It looks dead but it's not. Many plants just don't keep their leaves on for much of the year. Leaves lose water, and water is precious. Unfortunately, it's hard to tell what kind of plant it is without leaves and, especially, flowers.

Something in the borage family, likely in the genus Cryptantha.

Something in the borage family, likely in the genus Cryptantha.

Don't know what this is

See how teeny it is? If you aren't looking down, you miss flowers like this.

Something in the Sunflower family

Couldn't figure out what this is.

Same plant as above

White Layia, Layia glandulosa

We also saw lots of lichen:

In many different colors:

California Quail
They aren't plants, but I love these guys.

Male on the left, female on the right

Cleaning up whatever edibles the campers next to us dropped

A male quail

This post might give you a sense of how sparse the food resources are out in the desert, but this area was lush and green compared to the lower elevation desert area we visited. No wonder the Native Americans in the area were historically nomadic. It's hard to imagine someone subsisting off of the food sources here year-round.

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Now I'm home (4.00 / 1)
a little bit worse for the wear but very excited about my plant discoveries. If you ever go to Joshua Tree, bring a hat and a first aid kit that includes something for sunburns and something for cuts and scrapes. The sun is vicious when you're at an altitude!

I'll soon post a second diary with photos from the Mojave Desert region of the park, including a palm oasis.

Also, if anyone's up to the challenge, I'd love if someone could do a post or a series on camp cooking! I made a bunch of tortillas and then heated them up over the fire and they were a big hit. Fresh fruit and PB&J were also easy. So was trail mix. S'mores were practically a given. Coffee was more of a hassle to deal with but with a camp stove, a kettle, and a French press, we managed. But I'm all ears if anyone with more camping experience has some better ideas.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

Excellent piece... (4.00 / 1)
There may be an idea for some kind of journal / regular magazine feature here, if such a thing doesn't already exist?  Huh, I don't even know.  I haven't perused a newsstand in ages, and I only go into used bookstores these days...

Both the leaves and the berries are also medicinal. They are used internally for urinary tract infections and externally for psoriasis and eczema.

Never tried juniper before, but something tells me it's probably not strong enough.  I generally need to Agent Orange my arms every summer, with these nasty expensive creams and gels, or else I run the risk of being detained and searched every time I step outside, especially where I live.  My luck is such that my psoriasis and eczema manifest themselves as looking like I shoot fucking heroin nineteen times a day or something.  Not good times during short sleeve weather.  Bah.


Is Charles W. Kane of any relation to Charles Foster Kane?  ;-P

I don't know about (4.00 / 1)
using juniper for eczema and psoriasis. My experience with herbal meds thus far is that you need the right dose. When I use peppermint essential oils for my migraines, I need to really slather the stuff all over my forehead to get any results. But then - it works! Same for when I had a nasty cold I tried to get rid of with herbs. I drank LOTS of tea, ate soup, took baths, and more, all with beneficial herbs - and that did the trick. Just one little cup of tea won't do it.

Anyway, I recommend looking up more info on juniper, but also check out which other herbs are recommended for those problems. There might be something more potent or effective for it.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

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