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Trees, Flowers and Grasses
of the Desert Southwest-
Edible,Medicinal, and Nuisance Plants

Page 1- Pinyon Pine, Mormon Tea, Prickly Pear Cactus
Page 2- Cattails, Purslane, Lemonadeberry
Page 3- Prince's Plume, Poison Ivy, Russian Olive
Page 4- Mountain Mahogany, Willow, Fremont Barberry

Tules or Cattails

Tules or cattails have had a seemingly infinite number of uses throughout history. Most of the plant can be eaten- pollen can be made into cakes or used in soups, young shoots can be eaten raw, and roots can be dried and ground into flour. They have been used for weaving baskets, mats, clothing and sandals, and for insulation and diapers. They have been used for making shelters, boats and even decoys for hunting ducks.

One of the best sources I have found giving a thorough ethnographic description of the use of tules is Margaret Wheat's Survival Arts of the Primitive Paiutes. She tells of the importance of the plant for the Paiute people of the Great Basin in Nevada. Another volume on the archaeology of the Great Basin is Robert L. Kelly's Prehistory of the Carson Desert and the Stillwater Mountains. Kelly has a chapter on foraging and subsistence of the ancient desert dwellers that is informative. He gives a complete list of scientific and common names for the food resources of the region, plants and animals and in the case of plants describes what parts were used. He cites Wheat's work a number of times.

Tules growing along a stream, John's Canyon, Utah
  Tules growing along a stream in John's Canyon, Utah.

I have only tried eating the shoots, the very inner portion, from down low and they are fine by themselves just pulled up from the mud they are growing in. I stripped off the outer portion of the stalk, three or four rings of it, to get to the thin, white inner rings. They have a tendency to taste like the soil they grow in, and to me they taste a bit like Jerusalem artichokes.

tule detail- inner rings ready to eat. The photo to the left shows the tender center of the lowerr part of a tule stalk.

Next on my list for cattails is to try eating the roots, both raw and cooked, maybe baked right on hot coals.


Purslane grows in disturbed areas. I have never seen it in any of the more remote canyons. Usually I have found it in locations where cows or humans have been. It can be eaten as-is, pulled right out of the ground, or lightly steamed. Steaming seems to give it a lemony flavor. I have eaten it through the summer and into the fall before a freeze occurs.

Purslane as it looks in September.


Lemonadeberry, a Sumac, is found throughout canyon country. It is also known as squawbush and skunkbush. The plant ranges in size from 2 to 6 feet in height and can be found from 3,500 feet up to 9,000 feet in elevation. I have seen it higher than that, and from a couple of feet in diameter, to a bush, or bushes most likley, in patches 12 feet long or more. The size depends on the location- the elevation, soil, and especially the amount of water the plant receives.The plant has tri-lobed leaves that are green in summer and turn red in the late fall before dropping.

The berries are yellow to red in color, about 1/4 inch in length if they are getting plenty of water, and ripen in mid- to late summer to fall. The ripe berries have the flavor of lemons, thus one of the names. The ripe berries can be sucked for their flavor and mimal nourishment. They can also be mixed in water to give the water the flavor of lemonade. Ripe berries can be mixed with other ingredients and eaten.

On my May 2011 Escalante trek I found the berries in a state of perfect ripeness. In fact they were probably the best berries I have had in years. Of course the snowpack was near 300% of normal this year, and it was raining every day. The berries in Coyote Gulch were by far the best. They were so ripe and perfect that the seed that is usually found inside was nearly non-existent. I just picked a few berries, chewed them up, and that was it.

sumac, or lemonadeberry, showing leaves and berries

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