Mesquites are so common in West Texas we may, perhaps be forgiven for failing to appreciate them. But they are, indeed, remarkable. The Pima Indians knew the tree as the “Tree of Life.” Interestingly, the people of Bahrain still describe one Mesquite tree that way. It is over 400 years old and lives near the highest point in Bahrain, far from any known source of water. Mesquites have been called “an elemental force of nature – too valuable to exterminate, yet too dangerous to go unwatched.” The common Mesquite grows in dry areas almost everywhere on earth, thanks to humans who treasure the food and wood it provides.
Every part of a Mesquite is useful. Today as in the past we use the wood in great quantities for smoking meats. Mesquite wood is an excellent fuel and was sought after by all Native American groups and Europeans as well. Havard in 1884 described how Europeans found Mesquite wood: “Sometimes, in the Southwest, camps are pitched on plains where no timber or fuel of any sort is visible. It is then that the frontiersman, armed with a spade and axe, goes digging for wood. He notices a low mound, on whose summit lie a few dead mezquit twigs; within it he finds large, creeping roots, which afford an ample supply of excellent fuel.” It is the frequent use of Mesquite roots for fuel that is the source of the expression that men in the West “dig for wood and climb for water.”
Mesquite gum is widely used to treat infection and irritation, sores, wounds, sunburn, and chapped skin. It is good restorative for dysentery, diarrhea, stomach and intestinal distress and hemorrhoids. It was also used as a treatment for lice, cough, sore throat, mouth sores, laryngitis, and painful teeth and gums. Poulticed leaves were used for red ant bites, and a tea made of the leaves was used as an eyewash for inflammations of all kinds, including pink eye. The white inner bark is useful as an intestinal antispasmodic and was also used to stop excessive menstrual bleeding and to reduce fevers. As early as 1871 one Texas county alone gathered over 12,000 pounds of gum for shipment to the East where it was made into gumdrops and mucilage. We still ship the gum to Australia.
Mesquite beans were a major, if not the primary food source for the desert Apache, Pima, Cahuilla, Maricopa, Yuma, Yavapai, Mohave, Walapi, and Hopi tribes. Most Mesquite beans are sweet, typically containing about 30 percent sucrose; they produce a sweet flour that can be baked into breads, mixed in water to make coffees and teas, and added as an ingredient to many other foods. For natives, the fact that the tree fruits reliably, even in dry years, and that the beans keep well made them a valuable commodity. In fact, the best Mesquite fruit grows during droughts. The mesocarp (a juicy pulp between the seeds and the bean pod) has 7 to 10 percent fiber and 39 percent protein (twice that of other legumes). Recently we’ve learned that the flour has a remarkably stabilizing effect on blood sugar levels, making it safe for diabetics and a great snack for all. It is said that if you eat Mesquite flour foods, you won’t be hungry again for four or five hours.
Mesquite gum has a long history of medicinal use. Southwestern tribes prepared it in water and used it as an eyewash for treating infection and irritation. They used it for several skin problems including sores, burns, and chapped or raw skin, and sunburn. It was particularly useful for settling stomach distress, and curing bouts of dysentery, diarrhea, and food poisoning. They also took it for intestinal pain, ulcers, and hemorrhoids.
More than 200 plants and animal species depend on the mesquite tree for survival and reproduction. Bees in arid areas rely on its pollen to produce food for their young and honey for the winter. Deer, javelina, coyotes, jackrabbits, skunks, turkey, quail, and doves greedily consume the beans along with livestock of all kinds.
Removing Mesquites in Arizona has resulted in reducing the numbers of 36 of the 82 kinds of birds that depend on the flood-plain mesquite forest habitat. No wonder – removing Mesquites results in a significant decline in the soil’s nutrient availability, along with a decline in the amounts of Phosphorus, Potassium, and Sulfur – everything suffers when Mesquites are removed.
Mesquite is superbly adapted to xeric conditions. It maintains two sets of roots – extremely long tap roots to reach deep water sources, and broad, shallow roots to capture water from brief rain events. Mesquite tap roots have been found as much as 200 feet below the surface and the surface roots may extend 50 feet or more past the outer edge of the crown. The tree can also grow to magnificent proportions. The biggest one in Texas has a trunk almost 6 feet in diameter, stands 56 feet tall, and has a 87 foot crown.
Mesquites adjust both root and crown growth to fit their circumstances. The same species that grows to 55 feet, may only grow to 2 or 3 feet on dry or windy sites. Reports from early travelers in Texas indicate that it grew as single trees, as savannahs, and as vast expanses of scrub thickets throughout the state.
Savannahs – large open space grasslands with scattered trees – are the most productive way for Mesquites to grow. In savannahs Mesquite provides shade for livestock, creates wildlife habitat, and improves growth and abundance of perennial grasses under its’ canopy. Mesquite can improve the productivity of grasslands by enhancing soil fertility, improving availability of Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus, and Sulfur. Nitrogen yields may be as much as 15 times higher in the soil under Mesquites than in non-Mesquite soils. Perennial grasses grow stronger and more abundantly under Mesquite.
Unfortunately, Mesquite is quite well-suited to conditions that prevail in most ranching situations. It would be fair to say that ranching has been a great benefit to Mesquite. Livestock disperse Mesquite seeds and fire suppression ensures that seedlings thrive. Removing Prairie Dogs removed the only animal that browsed it and suppressed its growth. These changing conditions have caused Mesquite to grow in vast scrub thickets which now make ranching difficult, and in some cases, impracticable. And, at present, there is no known way of reversing these conditions, at least in any affordable way.
In light of the many benefits Mesquite provides, it is beginning to appear that Mesquite should be treated as a resource-to-be-managed rather than as a threat to business. Learning how to reverse the changes we have made in the way Mesquite grows and how to take advantage of what it has to offer is one of the great ecological challenges facing us today.