Ancestral Pueblo Native Plant Use

Frosty yucca
Yucca leaves are very fibrous and provide the material to make rope, baskets, and sandals.

Photo by Sally King

Although Ancestral Pueblo people were not totally reliant upon gathering like their predecessors, the Paleo-Indians, they still depended upon native plants to supplement their diet and numerous other uses.

Yucca was a very important plant for the Ancestral Pueblo people because of its diverse uses. The roots of the plant were peeled and ground to produce a sudsy pulp. The pulp was mixed with water and used for soap or shampoo. Legend says that washing your hair with yucca shampoo makes the hair strands stronger and may even prevent baldness. (Remember, native plants can not be collected in the park.)

Yucca Flowers
Yucca flowers are sweet and edible.

Photo by Sally King

Yucca leaves are stiff and full of fibers. The yucca leaves were collected and stripped of fibers. The fibers were then woven into sandals, baskets, or rope. Twine made from yucca fiber was twisted with wet turkey feathers or strips of rabbit fur to made nice warm blankets. Imagine curling up on a cold winter's night under a nice warm thick turkey feather blanket you had just made. The people could chew one end of a short length of yucca leaf, exposing the fibers and producing paintbrushes for decorating pottery. If you've ever accidentally backed into a yucca plant you know a sharp, hard point tips each leaf. These sharp leaf ends could be used as needles for sewing when combined with the fibrous threads from the leaves.

The soft, fleshy fruit of the yucca was a staple of Ancestral Pueblo diet. It could be eaten raw, cooked, or mixed with other ingredients. In early summer the yucca blooms with shiny white flowers. These flowers are sweet and can be eaten raw. If you're very hungry, you can even eat the root. Unfortunately, it's like washing your mouth with soap since it tastes like detergent.

During Ancestral Pueblo times the blooms of the cholla cactus were eaten and provided calcium in their diet.

Photo by Sally King

Walking Stick or Cane Cholla
People often mistake the yellowish-green fruit of this plant with the plant's flower bud. However, if you ever saw the cactus in bloom with its bright pink flowers the difference would be obvious. Historically cholla was considered a famine food, eaten only when food was especially scarce. However, during prehistoric times it is likely cholla was a food staple. The fruit could be eaten raw or dried for use during the winter. The stalks could be eaten once the thorns were removed. Cholla buds are rich in calcium. Amazingly, a two tablespoon serving contains only a few calories but as much calcium as a glass of milk. Milk was not available to Ancestral Pueblo people beyond infancy.

prickly pear with blooms
Prickly pears are a good source of food but all parts, except the blossoms, are covered with fine thorns.

Photo by Sally King

Prickly Pear Cactus
The fruit of prickly pear cactus, known as a tuna, would have been one of the few naturally sweet foods available to Ancestral Pueblo people. Collecting the fruit and preparing it for consumption must be done with due caution. All surface parts of the plant are heavily covered with needle-fine thorns. Thick gloves, probably of rawhide, must have been worn during the collection process. The fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. Jelly or candy made from the cooked fruit is still sold locally today.

The young pads of the prickly pear cactus are also edible. Cut into strips, the pads are boiled. The pads contain a thick, mucilaginous fluid to help maintain moisture. The resulting food, called nopalitas, can have this same unappealing consistency.

prickly pear fruit
Prickly pear cactus fruits are called tunas. They are sweet and edible.

Photo by Sally King


Last updated: February 14, 2017

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