Monday, January 14, 2013

Paloverde and Acacia, the peas of Painted Canyon

Catclaw Acacia (foreground) and Blue Paloverde (background). Katrina Poppe Photo

An icy gale scoured the stony landscape at Joshua Tree National Park and our dreams of bounding across boulder tops through a sun saturated Seussian landscape were chilled. Fearing the same frozen fate as Service’s “Sam McGee” (albeit in a desert of a much different sort), we sought refuge further south and several thousand feet lower at the Salton Sea.

Climbing stairs in Painted Canyon
We worked our way around the perimeter of the lake seeking out birding hotspots, exploring dry-land edibles and interesting landscapes. We camped in the Painted Canyon, near Mecca on the north end of the Salton Sea and enjoyed a spectacular evening of star gazing around a warm campfire. In the morning we hiked into the Painted Canyon wilderness area and were taken by the colorful geology plowed by the San Andreas Fault and eroded by countless flash floods into a labyrinth of slot canyons amidst a matrix of badlands.
The Painted Canyon in the glow of our campfire

Catclaw Acacia growing along a narrow wash
Blue Paloverde (Parkinsonia florida) and Catclaw Acacia (Acacia greggii) grow abundantly on the sandy washes and canyon floors. Infrequent flash floods likely obliterate these shrubs, but the grinding of floodwaters, laden with sand and a healthy seed bank, scarifies the Paloverde and Acacia seeds and enables a flush of new seedlings to germinate in the moist soils following the flood. The seeds of both Blue Paloverde and Catclaw Acacia are edible and traditional foods of the Inviatim (Cahuilla), Akimel O’otham (Pima), and other desert dwelling peoples (Moerman).

Mature seedpods on the blue-green twigs of Blue Paloverde
Blue Paloverde is a tall deciduous shrub to small tree that reaches 35 feet tall. The stems are blue-green and have thorns that arise alternately along the new growth in the leaf axils. Leaves are bipinnately compound with 1-3 pairs of blue green leaflets per pinna and 2 pinnae per leaf. Seed pods are 1-2.25 inches long and hang singly from a 0.25 inch stalk. Each seed pod typically contains 2 grey brown beans that are 3/8 of an inch long and slightly narrower with rounded rectangular outline.

Seed pods and beans of Blue Paloverde (scale in cm)
When parched on a pan with a little oil, I found Blue Paloverde beans to be very crunchy but with a flavor similar to black beans. The Inviatim traditionally ground or pounded the beans into a flour and mixed them with water to make a porridge, or further dried the mixture into cakes. The Pima traditionally eat the green pods raw during the summer.

Leaf, seedpod, and bean of Catclaw Acacia
Catclaw Acacia is also a large thorny deciduous shrub or small tree that reaches 35 feet tall. Twigs are light brown with dark streaks and recurved thorns. Leaves are bipinnately compound. Leaflets are ¼ inch long or smaller, grey green, and arranged in pairs of 5-9 along the pinnae. One to three pairs of pinnae comprise a leaf. Seedpods arise singly or in clusters on long stalks. Pods are 2-6 inches long with constrictions between each of the beans. Beans are 3/8 to 1/2 inch long with an oval outline.
Raw Catclaw Acacia beans (scale in cm)

Parched Catclaw Acacia beans
The Catclaw Acacia beans pop when roasted as the seed coat splits away from the cotyledon. My only experiment eating a single mature roasted bean was not pleasant. While the roasted cotyledon initially had the flavor and texture of a roasted pine nut, the aftertaste was acrid and continued to burn the tip of my tongue and the back of my throat for several minutes. What little literature I can find on traditional preparations indicates that young beans are preferentially harvested. Once dry, the beans are ground, mixed with water, and made into cakes that can be stored for later use. I can only speculate that early season harvesting may be a way of avoiding acrid chemicals, and that dry storage and soaking in water might serve as a means of volatilizing or leaching what acrid constituents remain. It will probably be a long time before I can get back to the Desert SW to pick the immature beans, but in the meantime, I welcome comments from anyone who has eaten them more successfully. According to “Tamalpakh, Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants” by Bean and Saubel (1972), the young pods can also be eaten fresh.

A young Date Palm plantation
A nice cluster of dates
Along the shores of the Salton Sea near Mecca, large plantations of Date Palms (Phoenix dactylifera) can be found.
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