I was reading some threads on Perennials and seen the mention of how desert/succulents are looked over as a growable food source. So can someone take a newbie under their wing and teach him? I know of Agaves, Yucca, and Cactus but that is about all I know I don't know of the kinds that are edible or other desert plants that are. Can they survive in a 6a-5b WV climate? I have many more questions and will post as soon as they pop in my head. Again thanks for the help!
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
posted 4 years ago
I apologize in advance that my knowledge on this topic focuses on the Great Basin Desert in the Rocky Mountains. I've tasted a lot of plants growing in the desert, but classify most of them as inedible, even if other people have eaten them in the past. Seeds seem to be the most edible to me. Roots, stems, leaves, and bulbs not so much. I daydream about domesticating some of them, but I'm currently focused on adapting already domesticated crops to my environment. Seems like a better return on investment right now.
There are two types of desert plants: Drought tolerant, and drought avoidant. The drought tolerant plants are the classic cacti, succulents, and orchids. They store water during good times for use when it's dry. There are two types of drought avoidant plants. Some grow during the fall, winter, and early spring when there is more available moisture. They tend to be very frost tolerant, or they may be biennials or perennials that wither away during the summer except for a root or bulb. Plants in this category are things like Onions, Anemone, Bearded Iris, Hyacinth. Ranunculus, Gladiolus, Daffodil, Tulip, Sego Lily, Biscuit Root, Balsam Root. Another type of drought avoidant plants, the ephemerals, burst from the ground to quickly complete their life cycles when moisture is available from a deluge. Their seeds might lay dormant for years in the soil until conditions are right. Tepary beans are a domesticated crop that uses this strategy. California poppy is the poster child of this sort of growth pattern. Other examples are trillium and chickweed.
The desert adapted cactus and succulents tend to grow best in xeric conditions. West Virginia can't provide xeric conditions. You might average around 70% relative humidity, and get dew or frost 2/3 of the nights during the year. Out here in the desert relative humidity averages closer to 20%, and dew or frost occur perhaps once a month. It' common out here to go a month or two without rain. In West Virginia it's unusual to go without rain for more than a couple days. The desert has brilliant sunlight very frequently, which aids in drying things out if they ever do get wet. West Virginia is perpetually overcast. Cacti tend to rely on the environment to provide protection from micro-organisms (molds, slimes, mildews, etc), so they are quite susceptible to disease when grown in damper climates. You can do things to mitigate the effects of the moisture: For example, many people that grow cactus outside their native ranges plant them under cover to protect them from rain. It's also common to grow them in deep beds of coarse sand, containing no more than 30% compost. Planting on slopes facing the sun may help. Wide spacing may help. Also cactus and succulents tend to rely on the environment for weed suppression, so they don't compete well with other types of vegetation. Armoring the beds where they grow with pebbles can help suppress weeds. Once established the yuccas can hold their own against weeds. If you have sandy soil, cactus and succulents might do well for you in spite of the moisture. But if you have clay soil I'd expect it to be a constant struggle for them.
I'm always delighted to see bryophytes growing in the desert. They dry up and wait around for moisture, then grow like crazy for a few weeks, then wait a while longer. They do well in West Virginia.
There are wide genetic differences between various types of cacti and succulents, so some are more tolerant of moisture than others. Opuntia humifusa, the Eastern Pricklypear, is a native to eastern North America.