24 Trees & Bushes For Your Desert Food Forest

24 Trees & Bushes For Your Desert Food Forest

In keeping with the high desert theme of my last few articles, I’ll add some more options for creating your food forest.

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High desert food forest

24 Trees & Bushes For Your Desert Food ForestAs I talked about in the high desert food trees article, the high desert climate can be a tough one.

You’ve got cold, hot, high, dry, and windy conditions. It can be difficult to get plants established that like a gentler environment.

You may also have either high pH sandy or clay soils. The sand doesn’t hold onto water very long, and the clay holds it too much.

Some of the below varieties are unusual, native to the southwest, or considered invasive in some areas.

They may be hard to find, so order online if you can’t find them locally.

Also check out my fall tree planting success guide for suggestions on nursery suppliers.

Invasives

Because most of these plants are hardy, soil-indifferent and either seed-bearing or spread by rhizomes, some states and countries classify them as “invasive.” In some states this means the species are illegal to plant, or even illegal to NOT eradicate at your own expense. This is the government saying “Bad plant! Kill it! Die die die!!!” while it’s just doing what it’s programmed to do – live to pass on its genetics.

I have more to say on the subject but this post isn’t the place for it. So if you decide to plant some of these adaptable survivors, know that the “department-of-making-you-sad” may come visit. YHBW.

Fruiting bushes

1. Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa)

Notes: A fast-growing, short-lived shrub native to Asia. It has dark red edible fruits and makes good pies and jelly.

Nanking cherries can get 6 to 10 feet wide and tall, and will tolerate up to around 7.5 soil pH.

It’s quite hardy, up to zone 2, so don’t worry about cold winters killing them. They also tolerate wind and dry conditions, and you can put them in full sun.

Farmers sometimes use them for a windbreak shrub so that they’re densely planted to form a hedge.

Many types of wildlife – deer, rabbits, birds – like the foliage and fruits, so provide them with some protection at first like deer cones, tubes, or chicken wire hoops.

Nanking cherry is also used for screening and border planting. It’s often sold as a native/naturalized plant.

Hardy to: USDA zone 2

Suggested varieties: Not many cultivated, but there is White Nanking Cherry (Prunus tomentosa ‘Leucocarpa’)

2. Western Sand Cherry (Prunus besseyi)

Notes: Related to Nanking cherry, the Western Sand cherry is a smaller shrub around 3-6 feet tall and wide. The edible fruit is dark, usually purple to black.

It is native to the western Great Plains, tolerates around 7.5 soil pH, and is winter hardy to zone 3.

Western sand cherry has fair drought tolerance, and like the Nanking cherry it’s used for windbreaks and screening.

Similarly, the leaves twigs and fruits are eaten by wildlife. In addition, it’s good habitat for songbirds.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Few, but improved varieties Hanson Bush Cherry (Prunus besseyi ‘Hanson’) for its edible fruit, or Purpleleaf Sandcherry (Prunus x cistena), a hybrid for ornamental planting.

3. Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens)

Notes: There’s a story about Siberian peasant during World War II getting their chicken flocks through the winter by feeding them seeds from this plant.

Wildlife also eat it – mostly birds – even though the plant can have very small thorns. It can be a small multi-stemmed tree or large shrub.

It’s excellent as a nitrogen-fixing windbreak, border planting or flowering hedge, growing 15-20 feet tall and 12-15 feet wide.

Fiber is made from the bark and some native groups have eaten the pods, and made a blue dye from the leaves.

Siberian pea shrub tolerates poor soils, drought conditions, salt, and cold winters. It will also handle alkaline soils and requires little maintenance.

It does not like soils without good drainage, so add sand or gravel to water-holding soils.

Some of these were planted on my site, and they are some of the best-performing plants I have.

Since it’s a nitrogen-fixer, it has been classified as “invasive” by some states. But I love that it can succeed in my harsh climate.

Hardy to: USDA zone 2

Suggested varieties: Many are available, either pick the style you like or stay with the original

4. Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)

Notes: This US native is a small tree or large shrub that grows 12-25 feet tall and 10 -20 feet wide.

It’s often found around wetter areas like creeks and streambanks or north slopes of hills and mountains.

Chokecherry is cold hardy, can tolerate up to 8.0 pH, and it isn’t picky about soil type.

It is often planted for screenings, windbreaks or along riparian areas.

The fruit is used for jelly and wine, and many parts of the plant are used medicinally both traditionally and in modern times.

The twigs and leaves are a favorite of deer, and it’s very important to other wildlife as well.

It is shade tolerant, but needs full sun for a good fruit crop.

Hardy to: USDA zone 2

Suggested varieties: Some exist, like ‘Canada Red’ or ‘Schubert’

5. Buffalo Berry / Silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea)

Notes: This nitrogen-fixing US native shrub grows to 12 feet, and produces edible berries.

It can handle alkaline soil, fruits within 3-4 years of planting, and is low-maintenance.

Buffaloberry tolerates poor dry soils, drought, erosion, and can be used as a hedge.

Buffaloberry also can live 20+ years, has high climate adaptability, and is a great bee forage plant.

It is dioecious – each individual plant is either male or female – so plant several to ensure good pollination.

The fruit is tart and can be used either raw or cooked.

Birds start eating the fruit before they are ripe, so cover them if you want any to eat.

Hardy to: USDA zone 2

Suggested varieties: None known

6. Golden Current (Ribes aureum)

Notes: A native to coniferous forests and much of the US, golden currant handles full sun to full shade.

Spring produces yellow flowers that smell like cloves. It is somewhat shade tolerant, and fruits as soon as 3 years.

Golden currant is good for recovering disturbed sites, due to its natural spread and hardiness.

It tolerates a range of soil types and is a good soil stabilizer.

Golden current can survive moderate fire, and fire may help ready seeds in soil for germination.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Some exist that are improved for colors, size, or fruit yield and taste.

7. Goji Berry (Lycium barbarum or Lycium chinense)

Notes: You may have heard of the health benefits of goji berries AKA wolfberries.

Goji is tolerant of many soils as long as it is well-drained, and can handle highly alkaline soils.

Originally from China, it has purple flowers starting in late spring, and will produce red-orange elongated fruits until frost.

The fruits are packed with nutrients, vitamins, and amino acids, and is considered a superfood by some people.

They’re often dried then consumed, rather than raw. This makes then a little sweeter and less watery.

Goji has been used in Chinese medicine for a very long time.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Phoenix Tears, Lifeberry

8. Saskatoon Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Notes: A medium bush that grows to 15 feet at a medium rate, and lives 20+ years.

It’s a native to most of the US except the southeast, and grows in a variety of habitats.

Saskatoons prefer their soil a little wetter but well-drained, as they often grow near streams and creeks in the wild, but also on rocky dry slopes.

They like full sun but will tolerate partial sun, and should fruit within 3 years.

Improved varieties are grown for larger, sweeter berries especially in Canada.

The leaves will also turn yellow to red to purple in the fall, so it’s pretty year round.

If the top is killed by fire, it will re-sprout and fruit within 2 years.

The fruit looks somewhat like a blueberry, and is the blueberry for those of us with alkaline soils where traditional blueberries don’t grow.

Internally they are more like an apple or pear, with a sweet taste similar to an apple.

Like blueberries they have lots of nutrition and vitamins.

People use the fruit to make pies, pastries, wine, syrup and jellies.

It’s grow commercially in Canada and northern states like Michigan.

It’s a favorite browsing bush by moose, elk and deer, and other furry critters, and many birds eat the fruits.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: 

9. Seaberry/Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides)

Notes: Sometimes called the Siberian orange, seaberry is packed with vitamins A, more C than oranges (20-40 times more), E, and K, and minerals. It’s been commercially cultivated in Russia since the 1940s, and is natively found all over the Asian Northern Hemisphere.

As they are wind pollinated, they aren’t reliant on bees or other insects to set fruit. Seaberry is a potent antioxidant and tonic used by Asian cultures for a long time.

It is wind, salt, and alkaline soil tolerant, and make a great barrier hedge due to its thorns. Its high yields and consistent production make it a highly desirable plant.

Seaberry varieties vary widely in size from small shrubs to medium tree size, so pick a size that fits your location. They don’t like shade, so palce them in a sunny spot with well-draining soil. Other than that they are not too picky about soil.

Unique in the plant world, it’s also very high in omega fatty acids, the healthy oils commonly found in fish. Unlike other berries, they are not eaten by birds much at all.

In addition to all that, it’s also a nitrogen-fixer, and can improve your soil while feeding itself.

Seaberry is dioecious, meaning that there are male and female plants. So make sure to plant 1 male for every 8 or so females.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Titan, Hergo, Chuskaya, Frugana

10. Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)

Notes: Often reaching a height of 6 feet, japanese barberry has yellow flowers, thorns, and red berries that last into winter.

It has several varieties, with differing leaf patterns, color, and habit. The common variety has red to purple rounded leaves.

Japanese barberry tolerates a wide range of soils, and in the wild it’s usually found near edges, and at disturbed sites.

Because of the thorns, deer and other ungulates (elk, moose) don’t eat the leaves and branches. so it’s a good hedge/barrier plant. They’re also hardy and require no maintenance. 

It’s quite commonly used as an ornamental plant due to its colors and tolerance of pruning, as well as shallow fibrous root systems that fill in between plants.

In some areas it has spread into natural ecosystems and displaced native shrubs, where it forms clumps and thickets.

Smaller, more compact and drought-hardy varieties are available, so check  out those varieties if wanting to plant some Japanese barberry.

Hardy to: USDA zone 4

Suggested varieties: Dwarf Redleaf

11. Raspberry

Notes: Fresh raspberries are one of the most delicious (and expensive) fruits of summer. But they aren’t as easy to grow as other fruits on this list.

They like cool moist conditions, which is sometimes the opposite of our high desert soils. Make sure to give them enough shade, rich well-drained soil, and keep them cool and moist.

Consider placing them on the east or north side of a structure, as they will do just fine on the early morning sun.

Work lots of organic matter into the soil, which will encourage soil life and feed your raspberries in the future. Mulch with a thick organic mulch.

Hardy to: USDA zone

Suggested varieties:

12. Blackberry

Notes: You might be thinking that blackberries are as hard to grow as raspberries, but you would be wrong. Blackberries do great in the desert with just a little care.

Thornless varieties are available from nurseries, but you’re better off wearing long sleeves and braving the thorns. The thornless seem to fare poorly in hot desert climates.

Plus, they’re pretty hardy once established. As long as you give blackberries decent water, soil, and shade when needed, they will produce fruits for you.

And maybe not even shade. I have a blackberry on the south side of my house with no summer shade that produces gobs of fruit. 

As with almost every plant in the desert, mulch well to keep even soil moisture and reduce plant stress.

Hardy to: USDA zone

Suggested varieties: Rosborough, Womack

13. Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.)

Notes: If you live in a high desert climate and you don’t have prickly pear, get some! There’s likely a native variety growing within a few miles of you.

For a maintenance-free hardy plant well-adapted to the desert environment, this has got to be at the top of the list.

The fruit and young pads are edible and delicious. Herbivores won’t bother it. You hardly have to water it, or really do anything to it.

To propagate more, cut off a pad and stick in the ground – done. Easy, right?

As there are over 100 varieties of prickly pear, the hard part may be deciding which one to go with. One way to narrow down is to pick a variety that’s similar to the ones native to your desert.

Or if you know the fruit is good, just go and wild-harvest some pads, and plant them in sunny locations.

Hardy to: USDA zone 5/6

Suggested varieties:

Nitrogen-fixing trees/bushes

14. Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Notes: Black locust has many positive qualities, and is one of permaculture’s favorite trees for good reason. 

It grows fast, has rot-resistant wood, many sweet-smelling blossoms loved by bees, and fixes nitrogen. Black locust also coppices very well, and can be used for house building, furniture, and firewood.

Some native tribes use the wood for bows, and it’s one of the best woods around for fence posts. The wood is inherently fungicidal, so it doesn’t require any treatment for outdoor use. 

Though somewhat unusual today, it was commonly planted in America starting from the mid-1600s. George Washington even mentioned the tree. And according to some sources, black locust help the US win the war of 1812.

It is very good at erosion control and in reclaiming disturbed sites due to its aggressive root systems and ability to fix nitrogen. Black locust also has small thorns that are sturdy enough to be used as nails!

It can grow 30-50 feet tall at maturity, is tolerant of most soils ( including alkaline, yay!), drought, and cold (down to zone 4).

The only condition it doesn’t like is soils without good drainage.

Hardy to: USDA zone 4

Suggested varieties: general black locust, Purple Robe, Frisia

15. Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus spp.)

Notes: In the rose family, mountain mahogany is a nitrogen-fixing shrub or small multi-trunk tree. They usually only grow to 20 feet tall, though some can get up to 40 feet.

Due to its hard and durable wood, it was used by several native tribes for tools.

It is a favorite browsing plant of elk and deer, especially mule deer, who keep is shorter than it can normally grow without this pressure.

The fruits have a curly, furry “tail” that makes them easy to identify in the wild. The bark is reddish-brown, and they have evergreen leaves.

Mountain mahogany is native to the western US, usually found in arid places at higher altitudes, alongside pinyon, juniper and sagebrush. As you might expect, it has low water requirements. 

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties:

16. Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)

Notes: Growing up to 25 feet tall, this much-reviled plant is on many invasive species lists for its ability to survive, rapidly grow, spread and out-compete its rivals.

It was planted as an ornamental through much of Europe, then brought to the US in the late 1800s. It has thorns and olive-shaped edible fruits. Once planted as an ornamental or windbreak tree, it’s now become unpopular for its habit of taking over moist riparian areas.

Because it can survive in poor soil and the seeds are eaten and spread by birds, it can displace so-called “native” species. Russian olive can fix nitrogen, so it has an advantage over other plants in poor soils.

Of course, we know in permaculture there’s no such thing as weeds (and certainly not “invasive” weeds), just a plant in the wrong place.

Russian olive prefers moist riparian or floodplain sites, or alongside fields. Birds love the fruits, and help to spread them tree more widely. 

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties:

17. Honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)

Notes: This legume can be a large shrub or small/medium tree grow to 30 feet, and rarely 50 feet.

Honey mesquite is native to the southwestern US and produces yellow seedpods eaten historically by natives and many wildlife. 

Some natives ground the pods to make a kind of flour, as a substitute for wheat. Even in drought years it’s a consistent producer.

Honey mesquite does have thorns, and is not loved by ranchers because of its ability to take over (badly grazed) land and out-compete native grasses.

It’s heat and drought tolerant, and like black locust does well in any soil that’s not soggy. Being a legume it fixes nitrogen and so has relatively fast grown.

Hardy to: USDA zone 6A

Suggested varieties:

Non-food trees/bushes

18. Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)

Notes: A common ornamental tree, silver maple has leaves that are a grey color on the reverse side.

This fast-growing tree can get 50 to 80 feet tall and can adapt to a wide range of soils. It can grow over 2 feet per year, and live to be over 100 years old.

Silver maples produce sweet sap like other maples, but the quantity is low compared to sugar maples. It’s mainly used as a shade tree, which most of us in the desert badly need.

Because of its large size and root system, plant well away from sewer pipes and leach fields, wells, driveways, sidewalks, and building foundations.

Silver maples are tolerant of drought and poor drainage, and does well in poor rocky soils, but prefer moist well-drained soil.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Silver Queen 

19. Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Notes: Hackberry is tolerant of most soil and moisture conditions. This relative of the elm can grow quickly, and has an ideal life span around 200 years.

It it a US native commonly found in moist bottomland soil, but has the ability to grow in alkaline soils.

Hackberry grows to around 30-50 feet, but can get up to 130 feet in the best conditions. The edible small berries are eaten by birds and small mammals., as well as traditionally by native Midwestern tribes. 

The hackberries are easily digestible and have a high amount of calories from fat, carbs, and protein.

The wood was used for barrel hoops and pioneer cabin flooring.

It is a tree that tolerates urban conditions, high winds, pollution, and salt.

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Prairie Pride

20. Honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos)

Notes: The pods of the honeylocust are turned into silage and fed to ruminants, and the pulp inside the pods is edible by humans.

It is pollution, salt, and drought tolerant, and can adapt to a wide range of soils. Traditionally the wood was used in ship-building for making wooden securing pins.

Honeylocust has also been used for fence posts, bows, and furniture as the wood polishes well and is rot-resistant.

Honeylocust can grow to 30-70 feet, at a rapid rate of more than 2 feet per year, and its fall color is a bright yellow.

Like black locust, it can also fix nitrogen but at a lower rate – probably only enough for itself.

Due to its small leaves and thin crown, it lets filtered light to the ground which allows grass to grow under the tree.

It can also have 8in long thorns that can be used (like black locust) as nails. But you may want to get a thornless variety. Most varieties available at retail nurseries will be thornless. 

If you intend to propagate by seed, know that the children from the thornless varieties may not be thornless. 

Hardy to: USDA zone 3

Suggested varieties: Thornless

21. Cotoneaster

Notes: Related to hawthorns and rowans/sorbus, cotoneaster (pronounced kuh-tun-ae-ster) are shrubs or small trees up to 50 feet tall.

The foliage feeds several different varieties of butterfly larvae, the flowers are used by bees, and the variably-colored fruits (pink, red, orange, or purple) are eaten by birds.

Cotoneaster can also be an important food source for bees at a low time for nectar production.

It is popular in landscaping, because of its shape and bright-colored fruits.

Many species/varieties are available from nurseries, with different sizes and colors.

It tolerates a wide range of soils, except saturated. Cotoneaster is deer resistant, drought tolerant, and can be used for erosion control.

They don’t need much maintenance, except adding mulch and only pruning to control shape or removing dead or diseased branches.

Hardy to: USDA zone 4

Suggested varieties: 

22. Silk Mimosa/Persian Silk Tree/Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)

Notes: If you like bees, butterflies or hummingbirds, plant one of these will certainly help attract them.

It has fragrant fluffy white-to-pink puffball-like flowerheads, and grows up to 50 feet tall.

Silk trees grow rapidly, have low water requirements, and can grow in full sun in hot summer locations.

They tolerate deer browsing and drought, and a wide range of soils including alkaline. It’s also said to thrive in summer heat.

Like other legumes on this list, it can fix nitrogen which supports its rapid growth.

It can easily spread by cutting or seed, and the seed pods and flowers can be messy, so consider this when deciding where to plant this tree.

Hardy to: USDA zone 6

Suggested varieties:

23. Cypress (Cupressaceae spp.)

Notes: Many varieties of cypress are available to suit your growing pleasure. Most if not all cypress trees tolerate alkaline soils.

They usually have evergreen scale-like leaves, fast growth (2 to 3 feet per year), produce seed-bearing cones, and can tolerate full sun.

Cypress are usually taller than they are wide, and somewhat conical.

Like other conifers, they are not fire resistant, and so care should be use in planting proximity to houses and buildings.

Note: the bald cypress/baldcypress, is not a true cypress. This is the tree commonly seen in southern US swamps draped with Spanish moss. It can live in water that would drown other trees. This is not the tree you’re looking for <hand wave>.

Hardy to: USDA zone 6 to 8, depending on variety

Suggested varieties: Arizona, Macnab, Gowen

24. Cedars

Notes: Like the related cypress, cedars are evergreen and have scale or needle-like leaves. They also do well in dry poor soils and hot summers.

The “cedars of Lebanon” in the Bible (Cedrus libani) are a cold-hardy evergreen tree that like alkaline soil.

Native to the arid west, Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum) has thin fibrous bark, blue-gray berries, is often found with pinyon trees, and also does well in alkaline soil.

Starting at the edge of the midwestern states and heading east is the Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

Hardy to: USDA zone 4, generally

Suggested varieties:

OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about high desert plants, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info @ thepermaculture.life.

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