Top 5 Native Plants for Arizona Gardens

Zuni Pueblo Waffle GardenThe history of harvesting in the Sonora is the background of every Arizona garden today. Pre-Columbian societies toiled with the desert's challenges and cultivated the ancestors of today's hearty native plants. The Anasazi used square depressions to create waffle-shaped beds that held in water. The Navajo had flat-ground gardens that allowed greater run-off. Several tribes expended great energy to build canal-irrigation networks. The modern gardener does well to know the stories of these cultures. Note that "native plant" refers to plants that were present in Arizona before colonization. These plants were part of the agriculture and everyday life in the desert. Here are the Top 5 Native Plants for Arizona Gardens.

1. Tepary Beans - These beans have been harvested for 8,000 years in the Sonora. They require extremely little watering, sometimes producing after only one supporting rainfall. Teparies are good for planting in early spring and late summer, with a short 75-85 day maturation period. Tepary beans are exceptionally nutritious and often served a role in the Sonoran version of The Three Sisters.  
2. The Three Sisters (Beans, Corn & Squash) - This power trio is commonly planted in garden mounds and was a staple in the diet of Native Americans in Arizona, especially the Anasazi. The Three Sisters were of major cultural significance in many areas and represent an agricultural innovation based on companion planting. The different cycles of these plants can be utilized to create a symbiotic relationship in which they bolster each other. The tall corn acts as a trellis for climbing beanstalks while the broad squash leaves shade the soil. At the same time, the corn depletes nitrogen in the soil that is replaced by the beans.
3) Amaranth - A highly nutritious grain that has a similar place to corn in a backyard garden. In fact, North and South American societies once harvested Amaranth widely and some varieties are known to have impressive tolerance perfect for the Sonoran Desert environment. Cultivation in Mesoamerica began around 6000 years ago and only died out because of Spanish conquering and policies. Be sure to fully consider the height of the mature amaranth when you design your garden's planting scheme.
4. Sunflowers - Sometimes called the "Fourth Sister", sunflowers were grown alongside the traditional staple crops of Native Americans in Arizona and New Mexico as far back as 3000 B.C. They are able to withstand the desert sun at different times of the year and the plant is edible as raw/toasted seeds, crushed into flour for bread and cakes or extracted into sunflower oil.
5. Chia - Said to be one of the four major crops of the Pre-Columbian Aztecs, Chia seeds were widely harvested and traded in the Sonora. This annual plant yields seeds with an extremely high nutrition content. Some stories hold that Arizona tribes drank Chia-infused concoctions for energy before long runs. This plant has had a recent resurgence in popularity thanks to "Indian Running" literature describing the Copper Canyon in Mexico.
The absolute best resource for native seeds in Arizona is the non-profit Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson.

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