How Did Native Americans Use Succulents?
by Lynn KirkNov 20, 2021
Long before there were Walmarts, Krogers, and Home Depots, there were gatherers and cultivators. America’s indigenous people lived off the plants on their land. They knew which plants to grow, how to tend them, when to harvest them, and how to use them. Succulents were especially valued by those living in the southwestern regions of America. Tribes collected succulents of all kinds, from cacti to agaves. And their uses were not only ingenious; they were life sustaining.
So how did Native Americans use succulents?
When questioning “how did Native Americans use succulents?” we immediately think of the cacti that thrived in the desert regions. The prickly pear species was especially valued because it supported Native Americans in countless ways, starting with nutrition. The prickly pear's paddles (oversized green pads) were served up as vegetables, sometimes boiled as strips and other times mashed like potatoes. The prickly pear’s fruit was considered a treat, whether raw or boiled into a syrup for the making of candy or chewing gum (beats jerky!). And the leftovers? Saved, sun dried, and stored for the next season.
The agave succulent was another important-to-have food staple. This succulent's leaves were collected and roasted in pits until fully charred, fully done. Then they were eaten hot off the grill or pounded for the baking of little cakes that also dried in the sun. Leftover from the roasting was a juicy brown syrup with a molasses-like taste that flavored other foods. Since nothing was wasted, even the flowers of the agave were boiled. They may have been a bit bitter, but cooking lessened their bite. Seeds of the flowers were also harvested and ground into flour. For rituals and pleasure, juice from the young flower stalks was collected for fermentation. As the sugar turned into alcohol, an intoxicating drink resulted (consider it the forerunner of tequila).
Besides nutrition, how did native Americans use succulents? They employed them as treatment for wounds, diseases, pains, and other medical needs. For example, the leaves and fruit of the prickly pear were used to treat arthritis cuts, and swelling. Women who were nursing warmed the leaves to encourage milk flow. Poultices contrived from this succulent were applied as natural treatments for poor immunity and urinary tract infections. And, many of today's alternative healers agree with the Native Americans' use of prickly pear to help prevent diabetes, lower cholesterol, and fight cardiovascular disease related to diet (though those applications should be verified with a physician).
How else did Native Americans use succulents? They soaked agave leaves in water to soften them, then pounded them over and over to release the fibrous content. Once dried, those natural fibers were crafted into ropes, snares, and even bowstrings. Baskets and mats were crafted from the same fibers, as were clothing and shoes.
Meanwhile, spines (thorns) from the prickly pear doubled as needles for the making of clothes, tents, blankets, and more.
Well, how else could Native Americans use succulents? Not all tribes had access to these naturally growing succulents, so they highly desired them. The plants and their products became valued for regional bartering and trade.
Like our country's native ancestors, we still appreciate succulents — but now we primarily enjoy their beauty, hardiness, and ability to purify the air around us. Fortunately, succulents are now available as a domestic product. Their value remains high while their cost stays low.
America’s succulent plants continue to be nurtured with knowledge and pride by well respected family-run business: Succulent Market. And unlike our country's forefathers, we can order many different varieties of succulents with the click of a mouse, followed by prompt delivery right to our door! Check out all the options at www.SucculentMarket.com.
Cornett, James W. (July 21, 2016). “Desert Sun.” Agaves prove important to America’s Native Americans. Agaves prove important to desert’s Native Americans.
Murphy, Hugh. AIHDP. “Foods indigenous to the western hemisphere.” https://aihd.ku.edu/foods/prickly_pear_cactus.html.