The Desert’s Wonders Are at Your Feet, Hidden Before You

The Desert’s Wonders Are at Your Feet, Hidden Before You

Written by Gary Paul Nabhan

In the Western mind, deserts are typically defined and characterized by what they lack, not by the hidden treasures they are apt to offer. Would you feel comfortable if those around you defined you by your deficiencies rather than by your peculiar gifts? 

Fortunately, the Desert pays no mind to this kind of treatment, knowing it will outlive its detractors.

We need to look no further than the humble prickly pear cactus, which has had its valuable assets dismissed or defiled for decades, as ranchers and land developers grubbed it out of the ground. To them, it was no more than a thorny problem, standing in the way of progress.

And yet, if we squint our eyes in the bright desert light and tilt our heads for a moment, we see the prickly pears have more to offer humankind than we have yet to offer them.  

Its green, tender pads called nopalitos and its crimson fruits called tunas have been recently recognized as valuable dietary controls for high blood sugar and cholesterol levels, just as adult-onset diabetes and heart disease have risen in rank to be in the top three causes of death among the diverse peoples of the Americas.

What’s more, they can produce the same amount of edible biomass on a decadal scale as any other cultivated plant while using only a fifth to the half of the water required by most of the world’s annual crops. 

At the same time, these hardy perennials have extensive lateral root systems that pull down far more carbon than any annually sown vegetable crop, while producing harvests on local rainfall, rather than requiring frequent irrigation that depletes river flows and groundwater reserves. 

And now, we know that prickly pear pads and trunks of fiber so absorbent of sweat and protective from heat that they can keep hiking boots and outdoor apparel cool, dry and comfortable even under extreme conditions.

The hidden treasures of the desert have always lain hidden, right before our feet. And now, we can “stand there amazed” –as an old Western cowboy song goes- while they actually caress our feet!

Gary Paul Nabhan is a contemplative desert ecologist, ethnobotanist and literary naturalist whose many books include The Desert Smells Like Rain, Gathering the Desert, Desert Terroir, and The Nature of Desert Nature. Follow him at and at

Back to blog