Native Plants and Their Uses

Marcia leads a guided hike pointing out native desert plants and explaining how they served the lifestyle of the native Cahuilla Peoples. That’s Marcia below in the green cap.

She is so sweet and knowledgeable. I thoroughly enjoy working with her and learning from her. We’ve repaired trails together and raked and cleaned up fallen palm fronds in the Wilhelm picnic grove. A retired elementary school teacher, Marcia is a Master Gardener and leads a weekly hike Wednesday mornings.

The University of California Master Gardener Program is a public service and outreach program. In exchange for training from the University in home horticulture and pest management, Master Gardeners offer volunteer services to the general public. (

Since the McCallum Trail is still closed from October’s flash flood, we walk up Squaw Hill and then head across Thousand Palms Canyon Road to the Indian Palms Trail.

Alkali Goldenbush

This medium-sized shrub is related to the sunflower family. Clusters of small yellow flowers appear in the fall, attracting bees and butterflies. The Cahuilla prepared a poultice by boiling the leaves to help heal sores. They also soaked the leaves in a pan of boiling water and inhaled the steam to remedy colds and sore throats.

Since this shrub grows quickly and the foliage comes in thick, the Cahuilla used the plant as a windbreaker. They often surrounded their homes with a border of alkali golden bush. (

Honey mesquite

This was one of the most important plants in the Cahuilla diet, providing pods and beans. The fresh green pods were processed into a beverage and the dried beans were ground into a flour.


Marcia just happens have some flour for us to sample. This gluten-free ground meal is smoky and spicy. It reminds me of a tangy rub or marinade.

The wood was the best, hottest-burning firewood. Larger limbs were used for construction and slender branches could be made into arrows.


This desert plant needs an ample supply of water year round. It grows around the oasis and desert wetlands.

The roots and sprouts were roasted and eaten by the Cahuilla. Raw roots were a cure for diarrhea. The long slender stalks were woven into walls and covered in mud to build roofs. The Cahuilla also used dry arrowweed stalks for arrows.

Cattle spinach

This plant with very tiny leaves is an important source of minerals and salt for grazing cattle and sheep.

The iconic desert tortoise and other animals depend upon this plant for food and shelter.

Desert holly

This silvery plant is not related to the holly bush we are familiar with, but it’s leaves are similarly shaped.

It is one of the most heat-tolerant plants in North America. The light-colored leaves reflect light and heat, enabling the plant to conserve water. In severe drought conditions desert holly will even shed its leaves. Although there are no recorded uses of this plant by the Cahuilla, the leaves taste a bit like potato chips when chewed. A native snack food maybe?

Golden cholla

Native to the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico,  this species of cactus is found in the Sonoran, Mojave, and California Deserts.

Golden cholla commonly occurs in desert dry wash, creosote bush scrubs, Joshua tree woodland, and Pinyon-juniper woodland communities. Many native cultures ate the bumpy, spiny, tan fruit.


Not to be confused with the plant that produces the tar or petroleum product, it is sometimes referred to as Indian Penicillin. It gets its name from the resinous odor of its small and waxy leaves.

The Cahuilla used this plant to treat many common ailments. A tea prepared from the stems and leaves relieved sore throats, colds, stomach, and bowel maladies. The steam from the boiling tea helped relieve congestion. It was also used to help heal wounds, prevent infection, and treat dandruff. Seriously? Dandruff? I can’t imagine why the Cahuilla would worry about white shoulders. An itchy scalp… more likely.

Creosote is THE SMELL of the desert after it rains! There is nothing like that aromatic fragrance that lingers in the air. Marcia keeps a few sprigs of creosote in her shower to enjoy.

Indigo bush

Unremarkable in its dormant state, rains color it with bright green leaves and mauve stems followed by a cloud of purple blooms.

The Cahuilla steeped the branches in boiling water to produce a light yellow-brown dye for staining baskets.

Smoke tree

So wispy and pastel, leaning every which way in hues of yellow and green, this photogenic tree thrives in desert washes.

The seeds of smoke trees depend upon the washing water and flowing debris to open them and encourage germination.

Desert trumpet

This slender, leafless plant grows to 2 feet and bears tiny yellow flowers.

It was once thought that the inflated trumpet-like stem portion was caused by irritation from insect larva living inside. But this is no longer a valid theory. The Cahuilla used the bulge as a means to smoke tobacco.

Brittle bush

The silvery leaves of this plant are covered with insulating white hairs that deflect the sun and conserve water. In the spring it produces yellow daisy-like flowers. During dry spells it will often lose its leaves.

The leaves, flowers, and stems were boiled to relieve toothaches. The Cahuilla also warmed the plant’s sap or resin and applied it to the chest for pain.


A perennial grass found in wet alkaline areas, the Cahuilla scraped the salt globules off the blades of leaves to use as a food condiment.

The stiff salt grass stems were also useful as a cleaning agent and a handy way to scrub off the spines and thorns of cactus.

Desert Wishbone Bush

I thought the leaves were supposed to resemble wishbones, but I have been told that the branches are shaped like wishbones. This plant is a member of the Four O’ Clock family and grows in desert flats and canyons.

The October rains bring early blooms to the desert…

These purplish-magenta flowers of White Rhatany capture our attention.

The stalked puffball below is the Desert Shaggy Mane Mushroom that prefers the dry, sandy environment of the desert.

As we head back across the street to the parking area, an Indigo bursts out in purple flowers.

Jeff and I are becoming familiar with all these desert plants. As we take our hikes we try and identify as many as we can. The desert is a spectacular place!

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