I was in junior high when I first picked prickly pears with my parents and in my mid-twenties when I joined in the hippie-era enthusiam for learning about wild plants and trying to live off the land. All of us from that time are getting a bit gray now, so it was with great excitement that I learned that Nate Whitthorne and his younger brother Sam were not only learning about native uses for wild plants, but also teaching what they know to younger children.
Nate and Sam live with their parents Elizabeth and Perry on a beautiful piece of Sonoran Desert on Tucson’s far east side. Right outside their back door are mesquite and palo verde trees, barrel, cholla and saguaro cactus, and even a wolfberry bush. Their mom and dad originally learned about native plants from a class at the Desert Museum. They also bought my book American Indian Cooking: Recipes from the Southwest on native uses of desert plants and tried some of the old-time recipes they found there.
In October, Nate and Sam took their knowledge on the road as they represented Tucson Botanical Gardens at the Ventana Vista Elementary School Plant Science Family Night. Inspired by the Botanical Gardens Native Plants-Native Peoples curriculum, they showed the younger children how to grind mesquite pods on a metate, how to make fiber from agave leaves, and how to dye cloth with crushed cochineal beetles from prickly pear cactus.
No one expect folks living in the 21st century to exist on wild foods — there are too many of us and it’s not the way we eat today. And yet Nate and Sam understand that helping younger students learn what fruits and pods are edible and the other uses of desert plants helps them appreciate the history of the people who lived here before us. Understanding the hidden wealth of the desert helps all of us feel more connected to our environment. By seeing not just thorns and stickers when we look at desert plants, but also delicious food and fiber and dye, we look at the desert landscape as something precious to be protected rather than bladed to make way for another shopping center or housing development. How exciting that that the next generation is getting as much pleasure from learning about desert plants as we did when we were young.