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Useful Plants from Robert Nold’s “High and Dry”

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One of the more challenging environments for food production is cold and arid. I’ve been investigating useful perennial plants for that climate for many years. A few years ago I purchased Robert Nold’s High and Dry: Gardening with Cold-Hardy Dryland Plants. Robert isn’t interested in growing these plants for food, but he has an incredible wealth of knowledge and years of experience in growing plants in his Littleton, Colorado garden with 10″/250mm of precipitation a year and -10F/-23C winter temperatures.

I was fortunate to be able to visit Robert and his garden with a class last year. It was fascinating to see his collection, and I was struck by the beauty of these tough high desert survivors.

Robert’s book is quite remarkable and offers great information on growing and propagating these species. He doesn’t say which are edible or otherwise useful though. This article is intended as a “key” to help permaculturists and edible landscapers utilize his book to select species for a cold, arid perennial food production system. I’ve already cross-indexed them with other resources for you. High and Dry also has much to say on the subject of gardening in cold, dry climates in general – for example, he reports that most of these plants grow in soils with little or no organic matter in their native habitats, and are more vulnerable to disease in compost-enriched soils.

This article features many of the useful species from High and Dry. Get a copy and read it to learn all about his experiences growing them. All of these species have survived Bob’s test conditions of 10″/250mm of rainfall a year and -10F/-23C. All are native to the western United States, and some to adjacent Canada and Mexico as well. Of course there are many other useful species, native and not, that are suited to this area. Growers in other cold, dry regions (particularly in Central Asia) may also want to grow some of these species.

My sense is that these might represent the things you grow farther from home, while close by you’d have water-loving crops like peaches and apples watered by greywater and roofwater (or plain old drip irrigation).

Robert’s front yard with Cercocarpus (nitrogen), Lycium (fruit), Quercus (acorns), Cylindropuntia (fruit), Yucca (fruit), Elaeagnus (nitrogen), Opuntia (fruit, vegetable) and more. This is a zero-irrigation garden area in a region with -10F/-23C and 10″/250mm of precipitation per year, full of edible and useful plants (though he grows them only for beauty). The acorn from this oak (Q. undulata I believe) was the best I’ve ever had. Littleton, Colorado.
A piece of Robert’s back garden with Cylindropuntia (fruit), Yucca (fruit), Cercocarpus (nitrogen), Pinus (nuts) , and Amorpha (nitrogen). This is a pattern that a cold, arid food forest can follow. Littleton, Colorado.


Few trees grow in the high and dry country, and fewer still are much use to us in the food forest. Here are some good ones recommended by Nold. Pinyons are slow to grow and don’t bear annually but can grow where nothing else will. Mesquites are delicious and nitrogen fixing. We could use people identifying and propagating good forms of oak, mesquite, and pinyon.

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Cercocarpus ledifolius mountain mahogany   nitrogen-fixer
Pinus edulis, P. monophylla pinyon pine nuts  
Prosopis glandulosa honeypod mesquite staple pods, honey plant, coppiced firewood nitrogen-fixer, fodder pods
Quercus emoryi, Q. hybrids, Q. undulata “sweet” acorn oaks    
Robinia neomexicana New Mexico locust edible flowers, firewood nitrogen-fixer
IMG_6586 New Mexico locust is a nitrogen-fixing, coppiced firewood plant. Sedalia, Colorado.

Cercocarpus ledifolius is a very tough nitrogen-fixer, handling arid conditions and -50F/-45C! Robert’s garden.

Pinyon pine savannah, with Utah serviceberry. Near Reno, Nevada.
Honeypod mesquite has excellent edible pods, fixes nitrogen. Some forms hardy to -10F/-23C, this is the hardiest mesquite. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Emory oak is one of the few I’ve eaten that can be enjoyed free of bitterness. Image public domain.


This region excels in useful shrubs, including many edible berries and a large number of legume and non-legume nitrogen-fixers.

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Amelanchier alnifolia, A. utahensis serviceberry berries  
Amorpha fruticosa, A. nana false indigo pesticide nitrogen-fixer, contour hedgerow
Ceanothus fendleri, C. velutinus snowbrush   nitrogen-fixer
Cercocarpus montanus mountain mahogany   nitrogen-fixer
Elaeagnus commutata silverberry soap nitrogen-fixer
Fallugia paradoxa Apache plume   nitrogen-fixer
Lycium pallidum wolfberry fruit (native goji)  
Prunus americana American plum fruit  
P. besseyi sand cherry fruit  
P. virginiana chokecherry fruit  
Purshia tridentata bitterbrush   nitrogen-fixer
Ribes aureum, R. cereum, R. odoratum currants fruit  
Shepherdia argentea, S. canadensis buffalo berry fruit (not fantastic), soap nitrogen-fixer
The lovely nitrogen-fixer Amorpha nana with banana yucca. Denver Botanic Garden.
Serviceberries are the blueberry of the arid west. Montreal Botanic Garden.
Arctostaphylos patula and others make excellent evergreen groundcovers. Fruit edible but not fantastic. Denver Botanic Garden.
Cercocarpus montanus, one of many in this nitrogen-fixing genus. Colorado National Monument.
Eleagnus commutata, fruit terrible but used to make soap. Nitrogen-fixer. Robert’s garden.
Fallugia paradoxa, Apache plume, a stunningly ornamental native nitrogen-fixer. Denver Botanic Garden.
Lycium pallidum, our spicy-fruited native goji (one of many native American gojis in fact). Robert’s garden.
Mahonia repens, creeping Oregon grape, a nice evergreen groundcover with small, sour fruits. Denver Botanic Garden.
American plum, Prunus americana. Doesn’t bear well every year but when it does wow! Littleton Colorado.
Sand cherry Prunus besseyi, extremely tolerant of arid conditions and heavy deer and elk browsing. Nice fruit but not great. Please find a good one and propagate it! Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Bitterbrush, Purshia spp., nitrogen-fixer for cold arid lands. Near Reno, Nevada.
Ribes aureum, buffalo or clove currant, heavy bearer in dry conditions. Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Buffalo berry, a spreading nitrogen fixer. Some varieties taste better than others, I’ve never met anyone who said they were wild about the flavor though. Image Wikimedia Commons.


This group includes cacti and “woody lilies” like agaves and yuccas. There are many useful species in this group. I’m not aware of any prickly pears with inedible fruit or pads, for example – though many are so small or spiny as to be not worth the trouble. A form of O. phaeacantha called “Mesa Sky” is noted for having particularly good fruit, while O. basilaris var. aurea is relatively spineless for nopale (edible cactus pad) production. I’m unaware of improved agaves or banana yuccas but would love to see people out there testing, selecting, and propagating them!

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Agave parreyi agave swollen base cooked just before flowering living fence
Cylindropuntia imbricata, C. whippleyi cholla cacti flowerbuds, fruit living fence
Echinocereus engelmannii, E. stramineus strawberry cacti fruit  
Mammillaria heyderi, M. wrightii pincushion cacti fruit  
Opuntia basilaris, O. englemannii, O. fragilis, O. macrocentra, O. phaeacantha, O. polyacantha prickly pear cacti fruit, nopale vegetable pads living fence (some)
Pediocactus simpsonii hedgehog cacti fruit  
Yucca baccatta banana yucca cooked fruit, fiber living fence
Cylindropuntia whipplei, with edible flower buds and fruit, surely as fine a living fence as you could ever want! Grand Junction, Colorado.
Echinocereus species are known as “strawberry cactus” for their small, sweet fruits. Denver, Colorado.
Opuntia basilaris var. aurea, the spineless beavertail prickly pear cactus, with edible fruit and nopales. Spinelessness definitely a plus for harvest! Note small glochid spines still present. Denver Botanic Garden.
Fruits of banana yucca are cooked as a semi-sweet vegetable. Also a fiber crop. Image Wikimedia Commons.



The region excels in edible roots. Though I’ve not included them here, Nold lists a hundred or so plants in the aster family, which attract beneficial insects.

Latin Name Common Name Uses Functions
Amorpha canescens leadplant tea nitrogen-fixer
Brodiaea spp.   bulbs  
Callirhoe involucrata purple poppy-mallow roots groundcover
Calochortus spp. Sego lily roots  
Cucurbita foetidissima buffalo gourd seeds groundcover
Dalea spp. prairie clover   nitrogen-fixer
Dichelostemma spp.   bulbs  
Erigeron flagellaris fleabane   attracts beneficial insects, groundcover
Helianthus maximiliani Maximilian sunflower shoots, seeds attract beneficial insects
Ipomoea leptophylla manroot roots  
Lewisia spp. bitterroot roots  
Lomatium spp. biscuit roots Roots attract beneficial insects
Lupinus spp. lupine   nitrogen-fixer
Oryzopsis hymenoides Indian ricegrass seeds  
Phacelia tanacetifolia scorpion weed   attracts beneficial insects
Purple poppy-mallow, groundcover with edible roots.Near Moab, Utah.
Sego lily, edible roots. Sedalia, Colorado.
Buffalo gourd, groundcover perennial squash with edible seeds. Image Wikimedia Commons.
Maximilian sunflower, edible shoots and seeds. Birmingham, Alabama.
Manroot morning glory, wild relative of sweet potato with enormous edible roots. Image Wikimedia Commons.
Biscuitroot, edible roots and attracts beneficial insects. Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Phacelia, grown commericaly for beneficial insects on farms in Europe but native to dry western North America. Near Reno, Nevada.
Indian ricegrass, important wild staple grain historically and a minor perennial crop today. Moab, Utah.