Over the past several centuries, no one plant has probably played a greater and more vital role in the lives of humankind in the southwestern United States than the short stature, crooked mesquite. Relied on for a myriad of necessities such as food, weapons, shelter, and medicine, early southwestern aboriginal inhabitants drew upon the mesquite in most every aspect of their lives, even to a position of honor in their religious ceremonies. Mesquite during times of drought and pestilence supplied early western travelers and settlers with survival, both in food and shelter, as most all parts of the tree were used. Mesquite that dominated the dense brush on millions of acres of the southwestern United States conveyed many emotions to humans who looked at it as a noble warrior, who confronted it as a powerful adversary, or who drew to it for survival.
(excerpted from The Magnificent Mesquite, Ken E. Rogers)
Mesquite (Prosopis pallida) is pronounced mess-KEET, it’s also known as algarroba in most South American countries. In Spanish it’s spelled mezquite, and the Nahuatl Indians spell the word mizquitl. When the Conquistadors searched for gold in the 1500's through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, mesquite seedpods served as a dense, high-energy horse fodder; three centuries later, the southwest is still plush with these hardy trees.
A common desert tree here in Arizona currently enjoying a great popularity for outdoors grilling. It’s almost smokeless and burns very slowly, with its dark wood of tangled grains it burns hot with an unmistakable aroma. There’s nothing like a thick slab of yellow crookneck squash grilled to crunchy and tasty perfection. And while cooking with wood and mesquite chips is good but nothing compares to cooking with the dried mesquite bean pods. The flavor is much richer.
It’s one of the few trees that thrive in the desert heat. It has no known insect or disease pest and spreads readily by seeds or sprouting from its crown. There are two on the west side of our home in our backyard that provide shade in the summer and since they are deciduous they lose their leaves in the winter allowing the sun in along with some warmth an energy wise saving strategy. I put them there because nothing can kill a mesquite tree, not even me. When the world ends, I will be dead and only Cher and my mesquite trees will survive. The Tucson Electric Company may still provide them to homeowners for two dollars to help cut costs of delivery. With the canopy pruned high they make a nice landscape plant and with their graceful
branches, feathery leaves, and fragrant flowers give the impression of cool almost tropical feeling. Wielding sharp three-inch thorns, and growing in dense thickets, birds are attracted to them for shelter and long thorns as protection from them feline varmints.
If you’ve ever thought they look a lot like the acacias of the African deserts that have been trimmed into feathery graceful arches across the landscapes by browsing giraffes you’re in the right family! Both belong are legumes that belong to the Pea family or the more scientific name Fabaceae.
They range across the Sonoron, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts from western Texas, west to extreme southwestern Utah, southeastern California and into Mexico. Typically found at elevations below 5,000 feet they are well adapted to the desert and are especially valuable for uses such as lumber. Its wood is hard and fine grained that polishes beautifully. It’s a common sight to see them used as fence posts and the roots are amazingly large in comparison to the size of the tree. For example, Acacia roots in Egypt average around 98 feet deep, while mesquite roots may reach up to 175 feet deep.
Many Texas farmers consider this tree to be an aggressive and invasive pest among their crops, while others find creative ways to put them to good use. Some times after a late summer rain when the ground was soft, Granddaddy and Dad would dig up the roots and set them in a kiln to dry for fire wood to heat the house in the winters. Here in the Santa Cruz valley south of Tucson is a stand of mesquite forest that has trees reaching as tall as 20 feet high while out on the drier mesas they tend to be scrubbier and thicker, yet still a fair shade tree at half the height.
Did you know that the seed of the mesquite bean is so hard that it will tear up a good coffee grinder? What is needed is a mill called a hammer mill. To make mesquite flour meal, you can grind them with a coffee grinder but remove the seeds first. You will still have the same taste and much of the nutrition, just a little less protein. You may be interested to know that while the soybean's protein content is about 35% the mesquite bean has a protein content of approximately 39%.
Here’s a charming little recipe for Mesquite Bean Jelly I found on line. If you try it let me know how it turns out.
Mesquite Bean Syrup/Jelly/Sugar
Pick the beans from the tree after they are ripe - - tan to reddish brown.
An apron full.
Break pods into short lengths. Cover with water and boil slowly for 45 minutes.
Mash with a potato masher, or the like.
Strain through cheese cloth. Set first brew aside.
Boil the mashed pulp again for 45 minutes with water to cover.
Strain again. Discard pulp.
Combine again, strongly over high heat at first, then low until liquid becomes light to medium syrup.
Add pectin or Sure-Jell and lemon juice (1/2 lemon for each of cups of liquid) for jelly.
Continue boiling, carefully, until crystallization, for sugar.
It is as native as rattlesnakes and mocking birds; as blended into the life of the land as cornbread and tortillas. The tree exudes a gum that is equal to the gum Arabicand was used by untold generations before the pyramids were built; we are still making use of it. The mesquite trees greatest asset lies in its seedpods, which look similar to green beans and grow in clusters, nourishing about everything that either walks or flies in the desert. Cattle that feed on the open range will leave good grass to browse on a mesquite bush. Traditionally the desert dwelling Native Americans have gathered the seeds to make mesquite meal for breads called pinole and use it as a condiment or spice because of its natural sweet taste. They also make use of the bark for fabrics and baskets, as well as, in medicines for stomach ailments and as eyewash. Many critters such as the Harris Ground Squirrel eat the seeds too. The coyote’s diet in late summer and fall is composed of 80 percent or more of mesquite beans.
Primroses burn their yellow fires
Where grass and roadway meet;
Feathered and tasseled like a queen,
Is every old mesquite.
There are three types of mesquites found in the American southwest; the Honey Mesquite
, sometimes called the Texas Mesquite
, (Prosopis glandulosa), Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens )
and Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)
This tree grows into a large spreading mesquite 30 feet wide and 25 feet high, with a weeping form. Under hot and dry conditions it will stay a shrub. The bright fern like leaves are 4 inches long with individual leaflets 1/8 inch wide by 1 inch long. Thorns grow among the foliage, which vary from ¼ inch to 2-3 inches long. They bloom in April and May producing straw colored leathery pods about 5 inches in length and ½ in width. It’s native distribution ranges from Kansas and Oklahoma, much of Texas, eastern New Mexico, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas, Mexico. It is typically found growing on desert plains and along washes its deep roots carrying it through periods of drought. It grows well in the full sun and will adapt to shallow rocky soil but its growth will remain stunted. As you might have guessed from the northerly extent of its range, this tree is very cold hardy, to 0º .
Uncommonly but sometimes called the Tornillo the Screwbean Mesquite gets it’s moniker from its unusually shaped seedpods. Coiled and 1-2 inches long and
¼ inch wide, they are dark tan and grow in clusters. Fuzzy yellow flower spikes, two inches long appear from April to June and even into the summer months. A large shrub with multiple trunks it can reach heights of 15 feet and a canopy with a similar spread. The foliage is a medium green with compound leaves measuring a dainty two inches long and ½ inches wide, with as many as eighteen tiny leaflets per leaf. Three quarter inch spines grow in pairs along the branches and the bark is shaggy. It grows well in areas that get periodic water like flood plains and washes. Found up to 4,000 feet in elevation it grows in California, southern Nevada, southwestern Utah, southern Arizona and New Mexico, and western Texas, as well as in Baja California, Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico.
This is probably the mesquite most commonly found in Tucson landscaping because it can be grown on golf courses and lawns. In its natural habitat, Velvet Mesquite grows along washes, in valleys, and on desert plains. It ranges form 1,000 to 5,000 feet in elevation and is distributed throughout southeastern California, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, west Texas, and Sonora, Mexico. This tree is gnarled and quite shaggy with fine soft hairs that cover the young growth. The fernlike compound leaves are 3-4 inches long and up to 1 inch wide, divided into tiny leaflets. The gray green foliage is deciduous in winter. Spines are present at the base of the leaves and are ¾ inches long and often in pairs. Velvet Mesquite is a large shrub to a tree depending on growing conditions. Near watercourses it can reach heights of 20 –30 feet and 15 feet wide. Springtime and sometimes in summer, 3 inch long light yellow fuzzy flowers, droop from the branches. Pods 5 inches long by ½ inch wide mature from the flowers, typically tan in color, but sometimes beautifully streaked with red.
Would you like another recipe from mesquites?
Judy Mielke, Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes,227-230 (1993).
Rogers, Ken E., The Magnificent Mesquite (2000)