Some wild & cultivated food & fiber plants, Verde Valley, Arizona
A Park sign at Montezuma Well says the Well is called, “Yuvukva (sunken spring) and Tawapa (sun spring) by the Hopi, Ah-hah gkith-gygy-vah (broken water) by the Yavapai, and Tu sii ch’iL (water breaks open) by the western Apache.”
As I mentioned in Saturday’s post about the Well, the Hopi claim ancestry of the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived at Montezuma Well. Those ancestors (Hisatsinom) are classified by archeologists as the Sinagua culture group, just like the clans that lived at Walnut Canyon to the north.The dwellings date to the 1100s A.D.
The Sinagua harvested many wild foods growing in and around Montezuma Well and nearby Oak Creek. They also cultivated gardens. In addition to food plants, the people harvested wild and/or cultivated three fiber plants: agave, cotton and hackberry. Here are just a few of the food, fiber and dye plants I saw on my trip to Montezuma Well.
Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:
Photo #1: Prickly pear cactus, Opuntia sp. Prickly pear cacti are excellent additions to any permaculture garden in arid, semi-arid and Mediterranean climates. Young pads are sliced and cooked like green beans or pickled. The sweet fruit is eaten fresh, juiced, jellied or dried. Fruit flavors vary among species. See the second-to-last paragraph for more information.
Photo #2: Arizona black walnut, Juglans major. The large tree is just leafing out. This species grows wild along riparian areas in central Arizona and New Mexico south into the highlands of central Mexico. It’s also native to Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. Arizona black walnuts bloom much later than cultivated walnuts do. Black walnuts are tasty and nutritious; their shells make an excellent natural reddish-brown dye. Black walnut tree roots produce the chemical juglone that inhibits the growth of many other plant species.
Photo #3: Currants and gooseberries, Ribes sp. These shrubs prefer riparian zones and need the extra water to produce abundant fruit. Currants are smallish, tart berries that come in different colors that are used for preserves, drinks, desserts, and sauces. Our native currants can cause digestive upset in some people if eaten in large amounts. Gooseberries are small to large, tart berries used for preserves, drinks, desserts, and sauces. Native gooseberries are quite tasty.
Photo #4: Wolfberry, Lycium pallidum. Native to southwestern North America and related to tomatoes, this deep-rooted, drought-tolerant, spiny shrub is growing in the desert just outside Montezuma Well. Wolfberry produces small, orange-red, tomato-like fruit that was eaten by native tribes fresh, dried, and cooked to make syrup. A sign at the Well says, “Known as kyeeve to the Hopi, it carries ceremonial significance and is an indicator of ancestral settlements.”
Photo #5: Netleaf hackberry, Celtis reticulata Native to western North America, this riparian tree has high-calcium, sweet, orange-red, berries (technically drupes) that are 1/4 to 3/8 inch in diameter and contain one seed. Bark fibers were woven into sandals.
Photo #6: Mormon tea, green, Ephedra viridis, Torrey, E. torreyana. A blooming Mormon tea shrub. Native to southwestern North America, this primitive evergreen shrub with jointed, leaveless stems contains one of the highest known levels of easily-absorbable calcium ever discovered. While Eurasian Ephedra species contain ephedrine, American species are very low in the caffeine-like drug and are safe to drink as a daily beverage. The tea has a rosy color and pleasant fruity flavor.
Photo #7: Agave, Agave sp. This photo is from a Park Service display along the Montezuma Well trail. It shows someone slicing the leaves off of an agave heart in preparation for roasting. Agave species are found in semi-arid and arid regions of the western hemisphere. The same sign that discussed agaves also talked about cotton cultivation by indigenous people (Gossypium hirsutum).
The same display sign reads, “Native people in the Verde Valley have a long history of cultivating agave and cotton: Burned, fire-cracked rocks here indicate that agave was roasted on this expanse above the creek. Agave was an essential plant, both for food and fibers. Archeological sites in the valley yield abundant agave cordage and numerous stone knives for harvesting and processing the plant. Hybridized varieties of agave and possibly prickly pear cactus, still growing in the valley today, are evidence that people transplanted and adapted both northern and southern species to the Verde Valley. Agave is still central to Yavapai and Apache cultures, and modern harvests and roasts provide a connection to the ways of the past.”
"In addition to cultivated agave, prickly pear, and other wild plants, cotton was a vital crop. By 1300 textiles had become important for utilitarian as well as ceremonial uses, and the demand for cotton was high. We do not know the exact role people here may have played in cotton trade. However, textile specialists say that Sinagua-style weavings from the Verde Valley were among the most intricate in the Southwest.”
Cotton seeds are a nutritious food.