- New mesquite hybrids show great promise as cash crops, lumber standouts
- Texas Baker Rekindles Interest In The Mysterious Mesquite Bean
- Mesquite Trees In Arizona
- Perfectly Adapted to the Desert
- The Appearance
- The 3 mesquite tree species for Arizona are:
- Historical Significance and the modern uses
- Maintenance, Treatments and Issues
- Liberty Tree Care Offers Tree Services in Scottsdale, Mesa & Tempe
- Native mesquite gets a serious look for landscapes
- They replace the nutrients in the soil
- You can sell the mesquite wood to restaurants
- They can be made into furniture, mesquite flour and maybe even fuel
- WATCH: 5 Best Places to Get Pecan Pie in Texas
New mesquite hybrids show great promise as cash crops, lumber standouts
Mesquite trees are tough plants that survive and thrive in some of the driest and least fertile/saline habitats worldwide, sharing space with cacti and other tenacious, water-thrifty species.
They are also incredibly useful. Mesquites (Prosopis spp.), nitrogen-fixing trees to tall shrubs with thin, feathery, fern-like leaves, have long been valued as a resource for food, medicine, firewood, furniture, and other uses.
While considered problematic weeds in some areas, mesquites are useful for soil enrichment via nitrogen fixation, their bean pods are edible (by humans, wildlife, and livestock), and their wood is an excellent source for firewood as well as lumber for furniture. Other commercial income opportunities exist as well, including from intercropping, pod production and grazing. Planting thornless varieties, which we’re going to talk about in a bit, addresses one of the traditional issues ranchers have had with mesquites being located on lands used for grazing.
Mesquite hybrid ‘Mojave’ PPAF
When it comes to lumber, wood shrinkages are probably the best measure of wood stability, and because wood stability is one of the most important characteristics in furniture manufacture, Prosopis species belong in the company of the world’s finest indoor furniture species. This is especially so when Prosopis lumber’s stability is combined with its attractive reddish-brown wood color and above-average specific gravity and hardness.
Apart from their considerable commercial utility, mesquites are habitat promoters, producing wildlife-attracting beans and providing perches and nesting sites for flying friends, including hummingbirds.
All the benefits outlined above provide the basis for breeding research that builds upon what mesquite trees already contribute to the environments around them. With that, we’re excited to highlight two very promising mesquite hybrids that are close to being ready for everything from serving as cash crops on cattle grazing land to shading residential landscapes. These are drought-hardy, deep-rooted, nitrogen-fixing mesquite trees that have been bred to grow straight, fast, and without thorns. Did you know that mesquite trees are known to send taproots down almost 200 feet to locate moisture? Crazy, right?
Mesquite hybrid ‘Sonoran’ PPAF
Both plants are hybrids of a thornless, erect Texas native mesquite and a cold-hardy thornless Argentine mesquite. At 10 years old, under good tree parent care, they will sport a trunk diameter of 6 to 8 inches and rise to 20 to 25 feet in height.
Among the several specimens that resulted from this hybridization, ‘Mojave’ PPAF has the most finely divided lush foliage (more shade) and the fewest thorns (none). Compared to the other clones, it has a more compact canopy and less height potential.
The clone ‘Sonoran’ PPAF boasts greater height growth than ‘Mojave’, with more widely spaced leaflets. It would be desirable as an ornamental variety where a more airy, open canopy is desired. It has small spines (3/16 inch).
Both trees are summer lovers, handling heat up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit. At the other end of the temperature spectrum, they are considered hardy to USDA Zone 8b (average minimum temperature of 15 to 20 degrees). This includes all of Southern California; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Austin, Texas.
Oh, and speaking (again) of food, the pods of dried beans can be ground into a flour. Roasted pods can be milled into an aromatic flour smelling of cream, coconut and chocolate. And that is just a limited taste of mesquite trees’ value as a food source, to say nothing of the wood’s prized utility as a flavoring agent in the smoking of meats.
Perhaps in the not too distant future you’ll have yourself an airy, dappled shade-providing, heat-loving, thorn-free mesquite tree that will lend a distinctive twist to your homemade pancakes, pastries, and, yes, cookies!
The trees are available wholesale by contract. Please contact Bruce Gibson for ordering information at [email protected]
The mesquite tree (Prosopis glandulosa) is a pod-bearing tree native to South Texas. It is named for its sweet, honey-producing flowers. They grow an average of 20-40 feet tall and have a broad crown of similar proportions with bright, green foliage. It has crooked, drooping branches with a smooth, brown trunk that roughens with age and is approximately 12 inches in diameter. The tree produces flowers in small clusters from March to November that are a pale yellow color and are an excellent honey source, after which it produces bean or pea-like pods with spines occurring at large nodes on the branches. The pods are long and yellow-green with edible seeds that are flat and narrow and resemble coffee beans. Mesquite trees grow in barren sites unsuited to most crops, and need little to no watering after the 1st year as their roots may penetrate 50 to 60 feet down in search of water. These trees grow very fast and definitely prefer little water after they are established. In fact, if you plant your mesquite in a regularly watered lawn it will grow tall and lush with a very shallow root system — and may very likely blow over with the first strong windstorm. Infrequent, deep watering is best because it encourages the roots to go deep into the soil.
Long before the first Anglo settlers came to Texas, Native Americans used mesquite in its entirety, seeing it as an integral part of their culture. They made sewing needles from the thorns and used the inner bark to make baskets and fabric. The bean pods served as food and were used to make medicinal tea. The mesquite’s sap was used for black dye and sweet gum, and the wood was used to make arrows and bows for hunting.
Today, many people associate mesquite with barbecue, it is also used in furniture making and is still used as a food source in items such as jellies, honey, liquid smoke and flour made from grinding the whole pods. It also provides livestock fodder and cover and serves as food for deer and turkeys.
Simmons Oak Farms offers Honey Mesquite trees for sale in several sizes. Contact us for pricing and availability.
Texas Baker Rekindles Interest In The Mysterious Mesquite Bean
Roasting mesquite beans brings out the flavors of chocolate, coconut and baking spices. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Karen Hudes/for NPR
Roasting mesquite beans brings out the flavors of chocolate, coconut and baking spices.
Karen Hudes/for NPR
Despite a warning to wear rattlesnake shin guards when walking through the Hill Country, the only sound I hear is the ticking of grasshoppers, crickets and dragonflies on this 100-degree day in Spicewood, Texas.
I’m hunting mesquite trees, and they bite. Their branches, spiked with two-inch thorns, hold desert-colored, seed-hugging beans that rattle when they’re ready to pick. If you break one open and put it in your mouth, it tastes lightly sweet.
“The hotter, the drier, the harsher the climate, the better the beans taste,” says Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali, who’s showing me where to find mesquite. He’s on a mission to revive the long-overlooked bean, harvested from the tree that became famous for smoking Texas barbecue (and upping sales of potato chips).
Mesquite beans grow from the tree’s feathery branches. This food was once important to indigenous people in Texas but is now largely overlooked. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Karen Hudes/for NPR
Mesquite beans grow from the tree’s feathery branches. This food was once important to indigenous people in Texas but is now largely overlooked.
Karen Hudes/for NPR
Most of Gyawali’s beans come from ranches in South and West Texas, where the honey mesquite grows wild like a weed. He roasts the pods, then mills them into an aromatic flour that smells of cream, coconut and chocolate. It brings a subtle earthiness to loaves such as the dark-crusted Rouge de Bordeaux sourdough he bakes. He also blends superfine mesquite flour with a little salt into butter that looks like cajeta as it’s whipped smooth. Spread it on bread and you get that rare thrill of tasting something completely new.
Historically significant food
While many Texans barely notice it now, the mesquite bean was once vital to indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Southwest, where the trees grow in abundance. Dr. Hermelinda Walking Woman, director of education for the Lipan Apache Tribe of Texas, grew up in the 1960s on a farm outside McAllen that was full of mesquite. “It was just very plentiful. You’d go out to the mesquite trees and you’d have these giant clusters of mesquite pods. … It’s been a big part of our history, of our tribe, that we would gather this and use it for food.”
By the time Walking Woman was a kid, food traditions using mesquite were already fading. Yet she has vivid memories of collecting dried beans while the adults ground the pods into flour in a mortar. From there, the flour was mixed with cornmeal into hotcakes and a farina-like atole for breakfast. Dense with fiber and protein, the bean (whose name is rooted in an Aztec word, mizquitl) concentrates its sugar in the pulp between the pod’s shell and the seeds.
Rediscovering old flavors and creating new ones
Mesquite flour stirred into butter has a unique sweet flavor, and is especially good on homemade bread. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Karen Hudes/for NPR
Mesquite flour stirred into butter has a unique sweet flavor, and is especially good on homemade bread.
Karen Hudes/for NPR
Gyawali was drawn to that sweet bean, too. A neuroscientist-turned-baker who immigrated from Nepal to Chicago as a child, he moved to Austin seven years ago. He says that losing a sense of having a hometown early on taught him to “seek out what’s unique about a place and how I can identify with that, and usually it’s through food.”
Gyawali first came across mesquite when he was working at the bakery and bar Easy Tiger. Slow Food Austin challenged him to make a bread with a mystery ingredient.
On the organization’s page listing foods in danger of extinction, he found mesquite pod flour. “I’d never heard about that before, but I’d heard of mesquite, and mesquite sounds like Texas, so that kind of took me down a rabbit hole.” He managed to find a box of mesquite flour, but was surprised to see it was imported from Peru.
The first time he baked with it, mixing it with wheat flour, Gyawali says, “It really smelled like baking spices, almost like I’d made a spiced holiday bread.” The people he worked with “went crazy for it.”
Later, while developing his own business, Miche Bread, he decided to focus on heritage grains. And every time he bought mesquite flour, he wondered why Texas didn’t produce its own. Finally in 2016, he won a grant from the Austin Food & Wine Alliance to purchase a hammer mill to grind mesquite pods. He began sourcing them from around the state last summer.
He operates the machine at Barton Springs Mill, outside Austin. Over the course of 30 minutes, as the crop roasts in the oven, the scent changes from beans to ginger snap cookies to a toasted bagel with coffee. The mill’s owner, James A. Brown, says mesquite has a “sweet complexity that’s very appealing and hard to tack down.”
Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali is on a mission to revive culinary interest in the mesquite bean. Karen Hudes/for NPR hide caption
toggle caption Karen Hudes/for NPR
Austin baker Sandeep Gyawali is on a mission to revive culinary interest in the mesquite bean.
Karen Hudes/for NPR
That’s partly why it melds so well with other ingredients, and why the Texas Mesquite Movement, launched by Gyawali and built through his partnerships with other Austin makers, has been so fruitful.
At the new Brewer’s Table restaurant, mesquite-buttered brioche holds together the fried chicken sandwich, which you could also dip in mesquite maple syrup. The ice cream shop Lick is making a seasonal roasted mesquite flavor with mesquite-infused cream and crumbled mesquite cookies; and craft chocolatier SRSLY will release 1,000 Mesquite Dirty White chocolate bars in October. Texas brewers have tapped at least six different mesquite beers, and distillers have started using the beans for fermenting and steeping. Gyawali prepares his own extract, too.
“Let’s make mesquite our vanilla, right?” Gyawali says, giving a demo of how to steep and grind the beans at an Austin farmers market recently. There, he throws out ideas such as a mesquite barbecue rub, mesquite-baked ham or even the region’s own mesquite-fed pig. He’s also a fan of mesquite in cold brew. “It’s kind of like our equivalent of the chicory coffee of New Orleans – it’s Texas coffee.”
The pairings do seem limitless, though Gyawali admits he’s finally learned one big reason why there’s no Texas industry around the mesquite bean. From the gathering to the grinding, “It’s a pain.” But, “If you want to talk about local, sustainable and delicious, this is it.”
Still, it will be an education process. The human connection to mesquite as a food has been battered for centuries. The colonists’ devastation of native tribes, Walking Woman notes, kept many of the survivors on the run and “broke a lot of the traditions that we had with regard to what we were doing and how we were getting our food.”
Later, as cattle ranching expanded and spread thickets of mesquite through Texas (from cows eating the pods), ranchers came to revile the tree as an invasive species to be destroyed. Since its firewood had always been valued for cooking, that part was commercialized. Not all farmers still hate it, though; as one says, “The thorns make a good toothpick.”
Future harvest challenges
Scientist and mesquite researcher Peter Felker, a partner in the flour importer Casa de Mesquite, says that attitudes about mesquite depend on the culture: “In Texas they’re bulldozing, in Argentina they’re planting.” He believes that propagating the drought-resistant, nitrogen-fixing tree could help people living in arid regions of the world by improving the quality of their soil. And using straight, thornless varieties, mesquite could be developed into a lumber industry.
But he’s skeptical about a Texas enterprise, mostly due to labor costs. “Without putting in plantations and having a mechanized harvest, I don’t see how they’re ever gonna do it.”
Gyawali is taking a broader approach. Mesquite will be part of a bakery/cafe he’s planning to open next year, but his reasons for focusing on mesquite go beyond the financial. “I’m trying to be more inspirational than a capitalist regarding this,” he says. “Let’s start with that individual who wants to do something with mesquite and has lots of it in their backyard, they can go pick a few hundred pounds in a season if they want. … You take that and multiply it by 1,000 or 10,000, and then you have a movement. So let’s think about it from that level, and the solution is right there.”
Ideas about what to do with mesquite mirror the tree’s complex structure, with its shrubby, gnarly bends. “The trunk splits in many ways, and that’s kinda how to look at it,” Gyawali says. “I want to see everyone using mesquite to make whatever the hell they want to make, you know? To really claim it as a resource. … Like, everyone does it bootstrapping and very independently, which is one of the cores of Texas, right? You can do it yourself.”
Karen Hudes has written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Extra Crispy, Tin House and The Awl, and formerly worked as a senior editor at Zagat.
Mesquite Trees In Arizona
Mesquite trees are a part of Arizona. Jay Sharp who is the editor and author for DesertUSA.com has stated that mesquite trees symbolize the Southwestern deserts just as much as scorpions, prickly pear cacti, the Saguaro, Western Diamondback, the Black tailed Jackrabbit and the Coyote do. It is true that the mesquite trees in Arizona are a part of life there just like tortillas and cornbread.
Perfectly Adapted to the Desert
Mesquite trees are a hardy desert tree that has adapted over centuries to live in desert landscapes around and in Arizona. The physical characteristics of these trees help to ensure survival which include the bean pods, root systems and foliage. They happen to grow well in high temperatures and full sun, but they do not tolerate the cold during the winter. They are often found within high elevation areas and can adapt to rocky, shallow soils. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service has stated that mesquite trees can live for more than two centuries.
The mesquite trees that are in Arizona are able to survive where there will be hardly any type of rain due to their unique root system. The Mesquite tree’s lateral roots that is has can reach out much further than the canopy ever will. Not to mention they happen to have tap roots that go very deep to get water well beyond 150 feet down, however 50 feet down is more typical. So, the mesquite tree will have access to water both at the bottom and top layers of soil.
The leaflets of the mesquite tree are tiny and waxy and they can retain moisture by minimizing the moisture that is lost through transpiration. The mesquite tree is deciduous which means that they give great shade during summer but will drop leaves and allow the sun to shine on it during the winter to keep warm. During times of extreme drought, they will lessen transpiration even more by prematurely dropping their leaves.
Mesquite trees are considered to be of the legume family which means that it is adapted to arid environments. They also have the ability to fertilize themselves and the surrounding plants using a symbiotic relationship with the soil bacteria colonies. The bacteria that will inhabit the roots of the mesquite tree will fix or convert atmospheric nitrogen which makes it available within the soil. It is a mineral that is essential for the germination and growth of plants. Most gardeners will use the same type of process to enrich their soil by actually using cover crops that are nitrogen fixing.
The mesquite trees that are within Arizona are very prolific. The beans from the tree are very durable when encased within their pods. If a seed has been undisturbed then it can be viable up to about 40 years. Animals will play a big part in the scarification of the seeds which is actually need for germination and the dispersal through their fecal matter.
A mesquite tree is really easy to idenfity, as they look like giant fern bushes. They are able to reach up to 30 feet tall, but the average tree that is growing in the wild are going to be half that size. Most will have multiple trunks and under the harshest conditions, the mesquite tree will look more like a bush than a tree. The branch structure will be jointed and twisted which adds to their uniqueness. During the early summer and spring, they will have finger shaped items that are covered in tiny little flowers. They happen before the formation of the bean pods which are a brown color, but it can vary based on the species. Most mesquite trees will have thorns which can be very long or short and very sharp.
The Arizona Mesquite Tree Natives and their Cousins
There are around 40 different mesquite varieties that are found all over the globe, but there are only 3 species that are native to Arizona. They not only grow in the Mojave Desert, but also in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran deserts. The range of these trees is amazing as they span from California to western Texas, from southern Utah to Mexica. They are able to survive in a variety of areas that are found within this area.
The 3 mesquite tree species for Arizona are:
- Prosopis pubescens: These are called screwbean mesquites which earned its name from the coiled or spiraled shape of the seed pods.
- Prosopis glandulosa: Is called the Texas Mesquite or honey Mesquite. They are normally have a weeping form and is very pretty.
- Prosopis velutina: Is called the native mesquite or Arizona mesquite. It is also called the velvet mesquite because of the soft hairs that cover the young. They are shaggy and snarled and are very popular in nurseries and will grow well on golf courses and lawns.
Besides these mesquite trees, there are a lot of other types of mesquite trees that happen to grow within Arizona. There are hybrids of Screwbean, honey and velvet mesquite, which happen mostly where the species happen to overlap. There are other nonnative species which originate from South America. There is the Chilean mesquite and Argentine mesquite as well as other hybrids and varieties. The nonnative species will be suited to the climate that is here just like the ones that are native to Arizona. For instance, the Chilean mesquite isn’t as tolerant of winter temperatures in Arizona.
Despite all of the positive qualities, mesquite trees are actually considered to be an invasive weed. In most countries outside of South and North American where they have been introduced, they are extremely invasive and a big issue especially in Australia.
Mesquite trees are also cursed by the inhabitants within the Arizona desert. Cattlemen especially hate them, but overgrazing by herds over the previous centuries have really made the problem that they complaint about, which is that the competition with the grass. In areas that are overgrazed, the cattle are not only threatening the population of natural grass that have often competed with mesquites for water, but it also helps the trees by eating as well as then dispersing mesquite seeds. All of the efforts that have been made to stop and control the mesquite tree have failed and it has been stated to be ineffective and impractical. Whether it be done by herbicide, physical removal, or fire, the costs and side effects to the environment by trying to control the population and spread has made it an issue without an easy solution.
Many arborists state that whether it is a welcomed thing or unwanted item, the mesquite tree belongs in the desert. They have evolved in the desert and they actually play a main role to the desert ecosystem.
Historical Significance and the modern uses
Over the centuries, there hasn’t been another plant that has played a vital role to the population within the southwestern United States than the mesquite tree. Mesquite trees that are all over the southwest have saved plenty of lives. The have provided nutrition for the men on the 1841 Texas Santa Fe Expedition as the beans from the mesquite tree were nutritious, sweet and protein rich.
Another type of food that will come from a mesquite tree within Arizona is honey. The swarms of bees that are attracted to the mesquite flower nectar will do more than just fill in as a role for pollinator. However, this doesn’t complete the list of foods that come from the mesquite tree. Even the sap has been used as black dye or sweet gum.
When the pods without or with the beans inside is called Pinole. It can be used as a flour or as a spice or condiment because of the sweetness. The flour is also considered to be quite healthy for those who are diabetic, as the flour is sweetened using fructose, which your body is able to process without having to use any insulin. That is just a single advantage that a mesquite tree has to offer.
There are also other parts of mesquite trees that have been used as a remedy for various illnesses by settlers and Indians in the frontier era. For instance, the mesquite tree was used to ease and heal colic, sore throat, ailing eyes, headaches, flesh wounds, dysentery, and diarrhea.
The pods, wood and bark of the mesquite trees are very popular to use for barbeques. The dry wood will burn slowly and hot with very little smoke. It has a very unique aroma. Some have insisted that burning the pods with the wood chips and charcoal can make the flavor much richer. Besides for cooking and for heat, the wood has also been used to construct Spanish missions, ranch fencing and houses, and colonial haciendas. The Native Americans have used the mesquite wood for arrowheads and spears, and the bark was used to make fabrics and baskets. The thorns from the tree were often used as a needle. Now the wood is valuable for sculptures making and furniture because of the gnarled patterns and dark colors.
The Arizona Mesquite trees are not only beneficial for humans but for wildlife as well. Animals will use the mesquite trees as food, shelter and habitat. During the fall and summer, the mesquite beans will make up about 80% of a coyote’s diet. The bean pods can even be used for fodder for livestock whenever the grass isn’t enough.
Maintenance, Treatments and Issues
Even though the mesquite tree doesn’t need a lot of maintenance, the ones that are growing around your home could use some extra care whenever there is a very hot summer or during extended droughts. Sun-scorch happens to be is one issue that could hurt a mesquite tree that has been planted within the landscape, however they aren’t as susceptible as a citrus tree. Deep watering every now and again and some occasional fertilization will help to make sure that the mesquite trees are around won’t decline in beauty of health.
During the times when there is plenty of rain, mesquite trees will not need any extra watering. However, when there is a drought, the leaves will become sparse and will allow more sun through the branches. This is caused by the need in cities to keep mesquites thinned out to survive heavy winds and storms, so that it won’t cause damage to structures and homes. If the bark is exposed to too much sun, sun-scorch can happen, especially in direct sunlight. Sun-scorch will cause permanent damage to the sapwood layer under the bark. The dead tissue and cracked bark can cause a secondary infection and infestations like sooty canker and bark beetles.
Sun-scorch can be prevented but it can’t be undone. Reflective paint when placed on vulnerable branches will help a mesquite from being sun damaged. The branches that are affected, need to be removed. The best way to prevent sun scorch is to encourage leaf growth to protect the tree during hot parts of the year by watering and fertilizing. If you give the tree ammonium sulfate once during spring, it helps. Unless it is fed by sprinklers or drippers, water the tree deeply every 2 months from early spring to fall. If monsoons bring plenty of water, then you will not need to deep water.
Mesquite trees that are planted in someone else’s property may not be as strong as the trees in the desert. Most likely they are nursery grown that was planted for use in landscaping and has spent time in a pot. The more time that the tree spends in a pot, the more likely it is to be root bound. Impaired root systems can make a tree struggle to receive what water they need to live, but also makes it prone to falling over because the anchoring isn’t very sturdy. You can try as hard as you want, but it is near impossible to make a wobbly tree anchor into the ground. Whenever you place stronger stakes and wires and putting the tree back in place when it falls, then you are just prolonging the inevitable. The absolute best thing that you can do for a severely unstable tree is to just remove it and then start all over using a healthy tree.
Check out this article that talks about wobbly mesquite trees to gather more information on how you can prevent it and even fix it: http://ag.arizona.edu/gardening/news/articles/17.29.html
If nothing else, we certainly do hope that this article about mesquite trees within Arizona can help to increase the appreciation for this wonderful native plant as a tree that certainly belongs in the desert that all Arizonan’s call home.
As J. Frank Dobie once stated, “Primroses burn their yellow fires, where grass and roadway meet; feathered and tasseled like a queen, is every old mesquite.”
Liberty Tree Care Offers Tree Services in Scottsdale, Mesa & Tempe
If you are searching for tree service in Scottsdale, Mesa or Tempe, Liberty Tree Experts can help! Get a free tree service quote by giving Liberty a call today at 480-482-9374.
Native mesquite gets a serious look for landscapes
Mesquite seeds have hard casings and long dormancy periods. If a pod and its seeds fall on dry ground in late summer, very few seeds germinate and fewer still survive; most estimates are less than 5 percent. But if a starving cow eats the sweet pods, the seeds are soaked in its digestive acids for several days, opening the seed coat. Then the seeds are deposited on the ground in their own moist, private compost heap. Germination rate improves dramatically, turning the cattle and their denuded pasture into a veritable mesquite factory.
Mesquite, therefore, was blamed for ruining the range, and the tree became the target for massive eradication programs. One popular technique was “chaining,” where steel chains weighted with massive metal spheres were dragged with tractors across hundreds of acres at a time. Mesquite trees were broken off at soil level. But that proved to be only a temporary victory.
Mesquite is a tenacious survivor; a single-trunk tree yanked from the soil leaves behind live roots that send up a multi-trunk and exceptionally thorny second growth. This impenetrable mesquite brush eventually claimed much of our state.
In the 1970s, a few Texans began to rethink our thorny relationship with mesquite. If mesquite was once a valuable resource, why couldn’t it be so again? The first organization to do so was Los Amigos del Mesquite, and later, the Texas Mesquite Association (texasmesquiteassn.org). Both groups stressed the many uses of mesquite wood, with Texas Mesquite Association working to create a market for mesquite in the furniture and flooring industries, in the art of wood carving and as a flavorful wood for grilling meat.
Native-plant enthusiasts began to consider mesquite, in its natural, lower, pre-European settlement numbers, as an important plant species in the state’s ecology. There are about 40 species in the genus Prosopis, most found in South America. Three are native to Texas, and two of those are confined to small areas along the Rio Grande. In 90 percent of Texas, mesquite means the honey mesquite, Prosopis glandulosa glandulosa.
Honey mesquite — its common name gives a hint to its environmental and economic value — has pale-yellow flowers that are sweetly fragrant in late spring and summer. They are an important food source for native pollinators and nectar feeders. Honeybees produce a clear, delicate honey from them that commands high prices, if you can find it. The pods that follow are eaten by humans, cattle and a number of other animals. A study in Arizona showed that 13 species of large mammals made extensive use of mesquite groves, or bosques as they often are called.
Mesquite is possibly the most drought-tolerant tree available to North Texans that is large enough to provide useful shade. It is pest and disease free and requires no special soil or fertilizer. As a member of the legume family, mesquites absorb nitrogen from the air and transform it into compounds that enrich the soil. It is reasonably fast growing, but its wood is strong and resistant to wind and ice storms, and it needs little pruning.
A well-grown mesquite has ornamental value in the landscape. A single trunk, or perhaps a few trunks, grow in sinuous curves. The color of the trunk and branches is dark gray, almost black, a Japanese ink painting against the sky. And the shape is Japanese, too: all delicate asymmetry of horizontal growth wider than tall.
In sharp contrast are the leaves: Pale but rich green, glossy, finer than the finest Japanese maple, they quiver in a light breeze. The foliage casts a light shade, enough to cool a hot gardener on a summer day, but dappled enough to let most plants under it flourish.
There is a serpent in this paradise, however, and here are its teeth: thorns. Mesquite has thorns on its new growth to protect itself. If allowed to mature naturally, the thorns disappear in time.
A thornless variety, called ‘Maverick,’ has been selected from the species and is available, through wholesale growers, to Dallas-area retailers. This vegetatively propagated clone is a true Prosopis glandulosa glandulosa. Other species of mesquite from South America are sometimes grown in warmer regions such as south Texas and the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. But these trees are not reliably cold hardy in North Texas.
Mesquites are difficult to find in Texas nurseries because the public’s prejudice against them is so great. And it is difficult to transplant the abundant wild trees because mesquite, unlike most other trees, keeps deep tap roots throughout its life. These roots can grow as much as 100 feet down, giving the tree its famous drought resistance. By contrast, according to the almanac, the taproots of most large Texas hardwoods, such as oaks and hickories, reach a maximum of 3 to 7 feet.
There are a few local independent retailers who, recognizing its drought tolerance, native hardiness, graceful silhouette and shade value, stock the tree. In time, we might all come to praise the mesquite.
Michael Parkey is a Dallas landscape architect who gardens with Texas natives.
Where to buy
Alta Vista Nursery, Fort Worth (Chilean thornless)
Bruce Miller Nursery, Richardson and Edgewood (native)
Elizabeth Anna’s Old World Garden, Fort Worth (in March)
The Greenery, Waxahachie (‘Maverick’)
House Nursery, Kaufman (Chilean thornless)
North Haven Gardens (Chilean thornless)
Growing up in South Texas I knew to avoid the short scrubby velvet mesquite trees that grew on the undeveloped land behind my house. Short and squatty, covered in thorns, they bloom with a yellow flower each spring and drop long mesquite seed pods every fall. They are not attractive. The mesquite leaves are fern-like in appearance and sparse, not lush or shady. The sharp, thorny trees have a bad reputation among landowners in the Lone Star State, but they really don’t deserve it.
Mesquite trees, at least the honey mesquites that are prevalent in the Lone Star State, are really “trees” in name only. Mesquites (or Prosopis glandulosa if we’re taking Honey Mesquite) are actually from the legume family that is native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. According to Florida State University, the bean pods they bear don’t split open when ripe, which allows the seeds to be distributed by wildlife that eats them. In Texas, cows unwittingly transported mesquite trees on long cattle drives by eating the bean pods.
Mesquite Trees are difficult plants to remove. Image via Florida State University
Widely considered to be trash trees, it’s standard practice for landowners to cut down this plant species on their property and burn them. Mesquite roots can grow close to 200 feet underground and regenerate if the tree is chopped down making them pesky trees to remove. However, they have several uses that shouldn’t be overlooked. The taproots are popular choices for firewood.
They replace the nutrients in the soil
According to Victoria County Master Gardeners, species of mesquite are nitrogen-rich plants, so leaving them on your land rather than cutting them down (if you’re able to successfully battle their ruthless root system) and burning them can improve the nutrient content of your soil.
Mesquite trees tend to be short and scrubby like a bush, but that’s usually because cutting them down causes them to grow back in all directions. However, if you prune them properly they will grow a central trunk and get taller and more tree-like.
Telling a Texan to prune a mesquite tree is akin to advising someone to wash their garbage before they throw it out. Sure, some people really do it, but most people will just laugh at you. However, if you want to reenergize overgrazed soil by giving it an extra food source, mesquite trees are a good way to do that. Pruning them will make them look a tad better (hopefully).
You can sell the mesquite wood to restaurants
Most people know that mesquite is a great wood to smoke meat. In fact, barbecue restaurants in the northern U.S. and Canada have it shipped in specifically for that purpose.
Texans may scoff at the folly of spending money to have mesquite wood shipped internationally, but a Texan pit master admitted to using a truckload of mesquite per week at his business. If you have a surplus of Mesquites, you could sell the wood to restauranteurs.
They can be made into furniture, mesquite flour and maybe even fuel
Those who view mesquite trees as a short, scrubby bush may be surprised to learn that artisan carpenters have been turning mesquite wood into high-end furniture for many years.
Some folks grind up the beans from mesquite pods for use as a flour alternative. People who have tried it say the flour has a sweet, almost caramel-like taste to it. (I wonder what cookies made of mesquite beans tastes like?)
Texas A&M AgriLife has been studying the possibility of turning unwanted mesquite wood into ethanol fuel since 2006.
So the next time you see a squatty, thorny mesquite tree, appreciate the many ways mesquite trees can actually be useful instead of cursing it and lamenting how much water it drinks.
WATCH: 5 Best Places to Get Pecan Pie in Texas
oembed rumble video here