Sonoran Desert Natives

Velvet Mesquite (Propsopis velutina)

Velvet Mesquite

Useful features:

Family Fabaceae (or   Leguminosae).  Mesquites belong to the   “legume” family.  The roots of the   mesquite form symbiotic relationships with soil microbes.  This interaction fixes nitrogen in the   soil.
Native to Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in SW USA and NE Mexico.
Cold tolerance Hardy to 5° F (-15° C)
Elevation Range 1000’ to 5000’ (300-1500 m)
Geographical Range
Sun Tolerance Full or reflected sun in even the hottest deserts.
Water Use Very low.  Mesquites have   long tap roots as well as extensive surface roots to make use of whatever   water is available.
Growth Rate Moderate - Fast
Size Large overstory dryland tree, 30 x 30 ft (9 x 9 m) perfect for   overhead shade in summer.
Shape Wide, spreading crown.    Can be multi-trunk (or low branching main branches) create sculptural   element and visual interest.
Type Semi-deciduous to deciduous
Foliage Grey-green, fine texture
Flowers Pale yellow catkins (spring)
Litter Spring – flowers (catkins), summer – seed pods, late fall –   leaves.
Thorns Yes, medium to large.
Wildlife Uses Home to birds, pollinators, and small to large animals.   Native wildlife eats seedpods and birds   will eat flowers (catkins).
Human Uses Food:  Pods and beans can   be ground into flour and used for baking.    The resulting flour has a consistency similar to fine cornmeal, a   sweet flavor and is very low on the glycemic index.Wood:  favorite wood for   flavoring BBQ.  Also a good tree for   coppicing for stick fires/rocket stoves.    Timber.Medicinal uses:  Inner red   bark used as a tea for sore throat.    Stomach ache treated with tea from fresh leaves.  Chewing soft inner bark used to treat   toothache.  Weaving , dyes and fabric   (bark)
Other Notes

 Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmanii)


Useful features:

Family Cactaceae
Native to Sonoran desert
Cold tolerance 10° F/ -12° C
Elevation Range 1,000 – 6,500’ / 300 – 2000m
Geographical Range California to Louisiana in the United States, and from Sonora   (state) to the Tamaulipan matorral in Chihuahua (state), in Mexico.
Sun Tolerance Full sun
Water Use Low
Growth Rate Moderate
Size Up to 5’ tall/1.5 m
Shape Upright branching shrub
Type Evergreen cactus
Foliage Fleshy green pads with numerous spines
Flowers Yellow flowers in summer followed by red-purple fruit
Litter Low - seasonal flower and fruit drop
Thorns Spines and glochids
Wildlife Uses Pollinators include solitary bees and sap beetles.
Human Uses Many food uses for the fruit and pads
Other Notes Prickly pear fruits are commonly referred to as “tunas” while   pads are referred to as “nopales”.    Find delicious recipes and harvesting information here:


Staghorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor)

staghorn cholla

Useful features:

Family Cactaceae
Native to Sonoran Desert
Cold tolerance 20° F / -7° C
Elevation Range 2,000 – 3,000 ft./ 600 – 900 m
Geographical Range
Sun Tolerance Full sun.
Water Use Low water use, drought tolerant
Growth Rate Moderate to fast
Size 3 – 10 ft. / 1 – 3 m
Shape Upright, with many branching cylindrical stems
Type Evergreen cactus
Foliage Stems are fleshy and cylindrical and often have a purplish cast   to them
Flowers Flowers in late Spring.    Flowers can come in many colors including yellow, orange, purple, red,   rust.  See:   for some beautiful photos
Litter Seasonal flower fall
Thorns Yes – spines and glocids
Wildlife Uses
Human Uses Cholla buds are a delicious spring treat.  Harvest and consume them before they start   to open.
Other Notes Recently changed family name to Cylindropuntia (from Opuntia)

Oreganillo (Aloysia Wrightii)


Useful features:

Family Verbenaceae
Native to Sonoran Desert of southwestern United States and northern Mexico
Geographical Range Western Texas to California, Utah, Nevada, and northern Mexico   to Durango and Zacatecas
Cold tolerance 15° F/-9° C
Elevation Range 1,500 – 6,500 ft./450 – 2000m
Sun Tolerance Full sun
Water Use Low, drought tolerant with periodic deep watering
Growth Rate Meduim
Size 5’ x 5’ (2m x 2m)
Shape Thickly branching, rounded shrub
Type Deciduous
Foliage Small ovate leaves are aromatic and widely used herbally
Flowers Produces narrow spikes of small fragrant white flowers from   spring to fall
Litter Seasonal flower and leaf fall
Thorns None
Wildlife Uses Nectar source for native solitary bees and larval and adult food   plant for the rustic sphinx moth.    Seeds and flowers are enjoyed by native birds.
Human Uses Immediately identifiable as a prime spice in Mexican dishes,   especially bean dishes as it helps counteract the “gassiness” of cooked   beans.
Other Notes Other common names include:    Wright's Bee Brush, High Mass, Mexican Oregano, Desert Oregano,   Spicebush, Oreganillo, Vara Dulce, Alta Misa



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