The holiday season is just about here. How do you celebrate traditionally wintery holidays in the Mojave Desert? Do we even have the traditional holiday icons here in the Southwest? We do have some substitutes and one or two traditional symbols as well.
While most folks will be finding their holiday turkey in the frozen food section, it’s surprising to learn that we do have turkeys in the desert. The Rio Grande variety was introduced by wildlife agencies and is not native. You have a good chance of seeing them in the Moapa Valley. Some folks may prefer duck or goose for their holiday meal, and you’ll also see those in Southern Nevada, wherever there is water. Just don’t think about harvesting one in the city!
The bright red cardinal is often used in winter holiday decorations. The Mojave boasts its’ own member of the cardinal family, the Phainopepla, gleaming black with red eyes. Coincidentally, this bird is tied to another holiday symbol, mistletoe. While the leafless mistletoe that grows on mesquite trees in the desert is different from the leafy variety used for hanging, it does have red berries that the Phainopepla feeds on.
Holly is another traditional winter-season plant, and the Mojave has its own version called desert holly. It’s really in the saltbush family and looks like it’s already been frost-covered. That white look to the plant is a normal desert plant adaptation, to reflect the heat. You’ll find this species of Atriplex in many desert areas, but find out if it’s legal to harvest it, depending on what land you are on. The desert barberry actually looks more like real holly, replete with red berries.
To round up our selection of holiday plants, we have plenty of pine trees in the Mojave at the higher elevations. But don’t think you can just go up to Mt. Charleston and cut one down. The closest place you can get one is in Lincoln County, and you’d need a BLM permit. A better choice might be a living tree available at the local plant nurseries. The best part is that you get to plant it in your yard afterwards and enjoy the beauty year-round. The varieties available at the garden centers do very well in the valley. Speaking of pines, if you like nuts in your cooking, try pine nuts. Although it is too late to harvest them from native pinon pines (which requires a permit and you have to beat the squirrels), they can be found at most grocery stores. Pine nuts add a rich flavor to stuffing and can be used as a garnish for squash or even cranberry sauce.
Now where are you going to get those fresh fall vegetables? Gilcrease Orchard is a great local source. This pick-your-own enterprise has all the fall favorites: apples, pumpkins, and cider, too. Finally, if you’re looking for the ultimate winter holiday mood-setter, you’ll find snow up on Mt. Charleston. They even have sleigh rides.
Margie B. Klein is a freelance writer, nature lover, and retired environmental educator who’s lived in Las Vegas since the ’90′s. Follow her on Twitter @NatureWriterVgs.