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

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 -10°F/-23°C 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 -10°F/-23°C. 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 -10°F/-23°C 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

New Mexico locust is a nitrogen-fixing, coppiced firewood plant. Sedalia,Colorado.

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

Pinyon pine savannah, with Utah serviceberry. Near Reno, Nevada.

Honeypod mesquite has excellent edible pods, fixes nitrogen. Some forms hardy to -10°F/-23°C,
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.


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.

Herbaceous Plants

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.

Eric Toensmeier

Eric Toensmeier is the award-winning author of Paradise Lot and Perennial Vegetables, and the co-author of Edible Forest Gardens. He is an appointed lecturer at Yale University, a Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown, and an international trainer. Eric presents in English, Spanish, and botanical Latin throughout the Americas and beyond. He has studied useful perennial plants and their roles in agroforestry systems for over two decades. Eric has owned a seed company, managed an urban farm that leased parcels to Hispanic and refugee growers, and provided planning and business trainings to farmers. He is the author of The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agricultural Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security released in February 2016.


  1. The desert is awash in food! Bob’s garden was a great trip. You got the acorn species right. I still think Lycium pallidum was the winner of that tour for me. Honey Mesquite can survive to -10F, but not in abundance. Prescott, AZ is a great example of their edge. Unfortunately I think most, if not all, of CO is out of range. It’s serviceberry heaven out here this year, Eric!

  2. What a great article! Thank you Eric. I come from Arizona, and now live in the cold desert of central Washington. Always looking for what desert plants are hardy in zone 5-6. Have tried honey mesquite I collected in central Arizona, but all have died. Still looking for some Opuntia fragilis that is supposedly hardy in zone 5. Mountain Mahogany seems like something to try too.

  3. Have to get the book borrowing it just wont do. I have 80 acres of dry range land in Klamath OR this line up of dry land cold hardy plants have given me so hope as for a productive crop with selling my soul LOL .Great artical

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