Desert Food Forest

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Harvesting trees, fruits and water — it’s the way of survival in the desert. Barbara Kingsolver underscored the importance of native Sonoran desert bean trees in her writings; today, permaculturist Barbara Rose continues awareness-building about the lush legumes that are part of our stories and that enhance our biome.

This year, to take full advantage of the bounty of peak native bean trees’ harvest season and to align with the O’odham calendar and the desert’s annual cycle, the Desert Harvesters group organized local education, harvesting, milling, planting and celebrations focused on the art and science of harvesting and its importance to sustainable living within our natural environment.

Preparing beans
Preparing beans; photo by B. Rose,

“We have a food forest in our desert — the ironwood, mesquite and palo verde,” says Barbara Rose, who since 1985 has worked as part of a group forming Desert Harvesters. Since founding her 20-acre Bean Tree Farm, Barbara also has offered practical teachings of living harmoniously with the land, community-supported permaculture, retreats and direct farm sales.

Barbara focuses on how the trees give back to the health of the community, with shade as well as wild food, which she incorporates in recipes including her savory desert kimichi, prickly pear borscht, ironwood sprout stir fry and pickled cholla buds.

If you see tall trees in the desert, and if you’re not looking at a saguaro, chances are you’re looking at a bean tree, says Barbara. Beyond mesquite — there are palo verde and ironwood… as well as other desert edibles include saguaro, cholla and prickly pear. This month is a critical time in our bean tree’s growth cycle, as there’s a rich bounty from bean trees to be harvested.

“We feel a hyper-vigilant responsibility to help community appreciate native edible species,” says Barbara, “and we’re absolutely overly-serious about programs that build awareness about harvesting and processing properly.” The tradition is to harvest before rain, and so the pre-monsoon impetus is to educate, she says.

Think about what happens in our warm and rainy season, Barbara advises. If we understand the natural system — the desert place uses this season to produce what will reproduce — with seeds falling to the ground in monsoon winds, and getting germinated with the help of the rains.

An important part of the education underway at Desert Harvesters is to teach the health and safety aspects of harvesting, and to not take more than you give back, Barbara adds. “All work comes out of a regenerative approach to living in place. Beyond sustainable living, it’s to create a landscape that retells its stories,” says Barbara.

Desert edibles
Desert edibles; photo by B. Rose,

Water and tradition are part of the cultural mix she respects. This season, the saguaro harvest workshop at Bean Tree Farm was storytelling and practical sharing, as well as learning how to harvest and give back.

To Barbara, trees — their beauty, shade, fruits and the nutrients in interacting with the soil — are a metaphor for getting along: “You can’t single out one without being aware that it’s the unified community that makes it happen.”


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