How the Salado Utilized Native Plants
At Tonto National Monument out in Roosevelt, AZ the ancient Salado culture not only made a living as dry farmers but also as hunter-gatherers in order to survive. Game meat hunted by the Salado included: deer, quail, rabbit, and possibly big horn sheep. Hunting provided vital sources of protein to add to vegetarian-based diet that was obtained through farming and gathering. Through each of the monument’s natural communities, the Salado utilized their native plants for food, medicine, and other miscellaneous needs:
Trees such as the mesquite and paloverde provided the Salado with firewood, bows crafted from their branches, and vegetables eaten from the pods. Branches from the ocotillo were found to be ideal for fencing and leaves from the desert willow were found to have medicinal properties for treating inflammatory diseases when boiled into a tea.
Cactus fruits from the Prickly Pear and Saguaro also provided the Salado with seeds which were ground into flour, syrup when the fruit was boiled or wine when the syrup was left to ferment. Ribs from the Saguaro were also used for roofing. For storage containers, the Salado hollowed out barrel cacti as substitutes for vessels.
Shrubs such as the agave, yucca, and jojoba were also extremely valuable to the Salado culture. The agave was perhaps the ultimate food giving shrub. When the leaves and heart were roasted for eating they would produce a sweet molasses-like substance used it as a sweetener. If the leaves were not eaten their fibers were combed out to produce thread for sewing, and twine used for hunting and fishing. Agave was also used for treating conditions such as indigestion, constipation, and arthritis.
Yucca was also a major food producing shrub as well as multiple-purpose plant. Like the agave, the yucca was also used to treat arthritis and joint pain. From the yucca fibers, the Salado crafted rope, baskets, and mats. In addition, the yucca also excreted an oozing substance which the Salado collected to produce soap and shampoo. Oil from the jojoba bean was also used in shampoo. In addition, the Salado and Spaniards alike used the oil from the jojoba bean as a source for heating and coffee.
As I have shadowed alongside the park rangers and spent time amongst the shrubbery that has blessed the desert lands, I now realize that the Salado and the Apache were not the ‘Tontos’ that the Spaniards perceived them to be. If anything, cultures like the Salado are among the most intelligent and resourceful groups I have ever encountered. They have proven that even in the most unlikely places one can survive so long as they understand the dynamics of their environment.
Cornett, J.W. Indian Uses of Desert Plants. Nature Trails Press. Palm Springs, CA (1995).
Moore, M. Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West. Museum of New Mexico Press. Santa Fe, NM. © Museum of New Mexico Press (1989).
Cactus Patch and LCD Trail kiosks. ©Tonto National Monument. Roosevelt, AZ (2015).