Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Harvest Ingredient 20: The Devil's Claw

Dried Fruit/Pod From Pima Country


Since today is Halloween, I thought I would present a little write up on a plant that is popularly know as The Devil's Claw!  This is another high desert plant of the southwest and norther Mexico; it prefers arid conditions of 1,000 to 5,000 feet in altitude.  It is also known as Devil's Horn, Ram's Horn and the Unicorn Plant, with the scientific name of Proboscidea for the genus.  It is ihuk in the Pima language.  The plant most often utilized as food by people is the species parviflora, although all members of the genera as edible.  This is not to be confused with the South African plant that is marketed by the same name as a supplement for arthritis.  Nor is it the same as the species of Acacia native to North America, which goes by the same name, but is not as well known, and occupies the same general area as this plant (that is for another post).

The strange looking fruit is so shaped so that, when dried and falling off the plant, it hooks on animals walking in search of food; the pod stays remarkably well and eventually the pod is crushed open by the animals and the seeds exposed, thus being naturally dispersed for reproduction.  The are also a source of food for certain types of wildlife as well.  In ancient times they were an important source of food for dietary oil processing, as the seeds contain about 36% oil.  They have always been an important food source for various O'odham groups and also have been used to provide a distinctive black design on the baskets of the Tohono O'odham and Akimel O'odham (Papago and Pima respectively).  They are a very traditional food of the Hia C-ed O'odham.

Flowering Probascidea parviflora the most common type of Devil's Claw

Although it has been determined that the seeds produce a high quality oil in the same vein an sunflower seed oil, there has never been any real commercial attempt to produce the oil on any scale usable for culinary applications.  The oil produced in trials was useful as both a base for salad dressing and has a shortening for frying (since it has also been compared to cottonseed oil, I would also surmise that it has a high smoking point when heated to temperatures higher, than say, corn oil would have.).  So as a food source, it remains, largely, a gathered food; although some people do grow it deliberately in their gardens, the plant is said to give off a distinctive odor.  As mentioned above, the seeds were the primary source of human and animal food, but the pods can also be eaten in their green stage, boiled like a vegetable.  Fresh green seeds provided a source of moisture in the arid Sonoran desert for people out gathering or hunting.  The fresh pods are supposed to be really good buttered or tossed in some very flavorful nut oil.  The Tohono O'odham ground the dried seeds to make a nutritious mush.

Devil's Claw green pods under cultivation of the University of Tennessee--they look a lot like fuzzy green chiles.

In these most modern of times, the Pima of Arizona now run a casino and resort as so many Federally recognized tribes do.  The entire place is filled with decor that reflects both their ancient agricultural practices (they were, by far, the most reliant on agriculture of the O'odham), it is also filled with decor in tribute to their traditional desert foods, among them Devil's Claw.  In their Wild Horse Pass And Spa located on the Gila River Indian Community, which also includes the Maricopa, Devil's Claw wall sconces line the resort...visitors often mistake them for animal horns.

A mid-Twentieth century Pima basket with Devil's Claw  (the dark parts)

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