As I sit gazing around the room, my eyes are drawn to the rich, dark whorls of the mesquite mantle. Capping an immense fireplace, it’s the focus of the room—the highlight. Polished and dense, a once mighty trunk now adorns this simple cabin like an altar to strength and beauty. The rain outside tapping against the window pane sets my mind to wondering. With great expanses of time and precious little water, what magnificence resides in the heart of the ungainly mesquite tree? It just takes an artist with enough vision and skill to bring it out. Nobility exists, it seems, in the humblest of nature’s work.
But this is not the mesquite tree most Texans know. Tough, tenacious and invasive, thickets of thorned shrubs battle for prized water and rangeland in Texas; mesquite wins much of the time. Ranchers and farmers doze, root plow, chain, roller chop, shred, or burn mesquite to remove or at least limit its spread, but the plants soon re-sprout from their bases, denser than ever. And using herbicide is hard, expensive work; multiple treatments are required for success—even then, there’s no guarantee. So, how’s it possible for schizoid mesquite to be both trash shrub and grand ornamental wood?
Where water is plentiful, and if the seedlings are protected from weather and animals, trees may grow 40-50 feet tall, with a spread of 40 feet or more across. But in the hot, flat, and glaring desert southwest where the weather is the same from month to month, give or take a rare chance of rain, the trees survive by adaptation. Through a combination of spidery lateral roots and a seemingly endless taproot, the mesquite tree will survive where other plants may not. And if the new shoot is disturbed—such as in open prairieland cultivated into pasture—the plant develops into a sprawling multi-trunked shrub—the scourge of the southwest. But it’s a scourge we brought on ourselves.
In the pre-European period, mesquite was present but in far fewer numbers. Mostly confined to areas of deep soil on hillsides near seasonal creeks, this is where the medium-trunked varieties were found. The Indians greatly valued mesquite. The abundant seed pods are high in sugar and can be processed into a nutritious flour or fermented into a type of alcoholic drink. Early Spanish settlers found even more uses for the tree. Mesquite wood is hard, dense and strong, so it makes sturdy beams, fence posts and can be carved into fancy planks for doors of mission churches and their altars. It also made great carved bowls, cooking utensils, furniture and flooring.
But upon arrival of Anglo settlers, with their herds of cattle and fenced-off pastures, two things happened: over-grazing and fire suppression. Taking native grasses down to their nubs left little chance for them to compete against mesquite for sun, soil and water. Furthermore, if the prairie is never allowed to burn naturally, fire never has a chance to control woody plants like mesquite. There was another process at play here too. If a mesquite pod and its seeds fall on dry ground in late summer, few seeds germinate. But if a starving cow eats the sweet pods, soaks the seeds in digestive acids for several days, then deposits them on the ground in their own moist, private compost heap—well then, we’ve just turned a denuded pasture into a veritable mesquite factory! So that’s why, when we fast forward to today, we find an estimated 25% of Texas’ grasslands infested with mesquite. In fact, 76% of all the mesquite found in the United States grows in Texas!
Mesquite thrives from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle, across Central and North Central Texas, and into much of West Texas. In fact, it grows in all regions of the state except the East Texas Piney Woods. It’s also plentiful in Arizona, New Mexico and North Mexico. As a leguminous tree of the genus Prosopis, it shares a lineage with about 40 other species, including peanuts, clover, alfalfa, and beans. Most are found in South America. Seven varieties of mesquite grow in Texas, but in most of Texas, mesquite means “honey mesquite” (Prosopis glandulosa glandulosa).
Once on a springtime guided nature hike at Buescher State Park, a little girl in my group was enthralled with the sweet smell and delicate flowers of a small honey mesquite plant. She obviously had never seen one before. After moving in closer to admire the bush, she suddenly jumped back in disgust. “It’s got claws!” she protested. It was as if lightning had struck, burning her innocence to a crisp in one instant. Yes indeed, hard needle-sharp thorns discourage all but the most determined explorers. Let’s try to get a deeper understanding of the honey mesquite plant.
Honey mesquite is perfectly designed for life in the desert. Its name comes from small frothy-looking catkins (pale green or yellowish flowers) produced each spring, which lure numerous pollinating insects—to include honeybees—which helps proliferate the tree. With their long taproots, they can locate water better than a camel lost in the desert. Taproots can reach more than 100 feet deep and have the ability to regenerate themselves after the tree itself has been chopped off. Lateral root systems stretch further in the search for water than most competing desert plants. Their leaves are small and wax-coated to minimize transpiration. Mesquites will even shed these leaves in extreme drought to further conserve moisture, and they bite—strong, sharp thorns grow on their smaller branches to discourage browsing by passing herbivores. Unlike prickly pear thorns, these do not decay; they last longer than your flesh will! As legumes, the plants fix nitrogen into the soil to support germination and growth, and their seeds have the patience to capitalize. Abundant and protectively coated, seeds may last for decades, in effect creating their own seed bank to improve the odds of wide distribution and successful germination.
We can almost certainly write off Texas ranchers from belonging to a mesquite lovers club, but the tree does have its advocates. In fact, The Texas Mesquite Association (www.texasmesquiteassn.org), with headquarters in Fredericksburg, holds two annual festivals highlighting mesquite furniture and art made by its selected members. Much of the rest of the world recognizes mesquite as a great wood for smoking meat and giving potato chips an exotic flavor that’s hard to resist. Barbeque restaurants from all over the U.S. and Canada have it shipped in specifically to fire their smokers. Farmers in Argentina grow it as a cash crop for export. Mesquite is naturally gluten-free and is a good source of protein and other essentials—and does not require refined sugar for sweetness. Sometimes mesquite pods are referred to as mesquite beans, which can cause misunderstanding as to how the fruit is used. It is not the actual beans inside of the pods that are most accessible, but the pulp or pith between the brittle outside and the hard seeds. Gourmet chefs—some right here in Austin—use mesquite pods to grind into an aromatic flour used in some of their more unusual dishes, like dark-crusted Rouge de Bordeaus Sourdough bread. Various types of milled mesquite flour are available for home use. Recipe ideas can be found in cookbooks such as Cooking the Wild Southwest or Decolonize your Diet (by Carolyn Niethammer and Luz Calvo, respectively).
Of course, mesquite wood still makes a great modern day construction material, making golf clubs, musical instruments, jewelry and—with stunning effect—fireplace mantels! It has proven especially suitable as flooring, as seen at San Antonio’s Hilton Palacio del Rio hotel, where the mezzanine and lobby floors are made of mesquite. Mesquite trees also benefit wildlife. The blossoms provide bees with nectar to make honey. Mesquite trees provide shade, food, and haven to birds and animals. In fact, coyotes almost exclusively survive on mesquite pods during the lean winter months in some parts of Texas. Scientist and mesquite researcher Peter Felker believes that propagating the drought-resistant, nitrogen-fixing tree could help people living in arid regions of the world by improving soil quality for other crops. Using straight, thornless varieties, he says, could even be developed into a lumber industry if properly farmed. Imagine that!
Meanwhile, today’s ranchers are still waging the long-running “Great Mesquite Wars” using every imaginable tool and technique. Some of them persist and win occasional costly battles against the tree. In the long run, however, mesquite has won the war. In reality, whether mesquite trees are good or bad depends on your vested interest. One thing is for sure—uninvited guest or welcome neighbor, the mesquites belong to the desert. That’s where they evolved and that’s where they play a core role in the desert ecosystem. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re just one more sip of this improbable phenomenon called life.
By Larry Gfeller