People once reviled mesquite as an invasive and unwanted native species. Now, views are changing, and many who once wanted to eradicate mesquite are seeing significant value in the plant.
Habitat and Food
Mesquite grows very quickly and can become a small shade tree rapidly. It provides habitat for wildlife in areas where other trees cannot grow. Deer, quail, rodents, doves and cattle are among the animals that feed on mesquite beans. Many bird species make their nests or roost in mesquite.
The flowers of the mesquite provide a source of nectar. From this, bees produce mesquite honey, which has a distinctive taste and fragrance.
Native Americans used mesquite as a food source, grinding the pods. From this, they made a meal called pinole. They also made tea and syrup from it. It has a sweet nutty flavor. Mesquite meal is still available commercially from several specialized providers. It can be used as a spice or as flour.
Mesquite is a hardwood, and as such, it is used to make furniture and wooden artifacts (bowls, boxes, and other decorative pieces). Texas ironwood is another name given to mesquite when it is sold as furniture. It also makes wonderful wooden handles for tools (axes, hammers, etc). Ranchers and farmers use it for fence posts as well.
Mesquite burns very slowly and is a great wood to burn in fireplaces and chimineas. It is also used to barbecue both because it burns slowly, but also because of the distinctive flavor it gives to foods.
Mesquite is a legume. All legumes have the capacity to fix nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen is necessary for green plant growth.
Mesquite is a survivor. It grows well in soils where other trees cannot grow. It is drought-tolerant. It sends down a long taproot to find water (mesquite taproots can reach almost 200 feet). It is so versatile through, that it can find water on the surface as well, and can quickly find and easily change water sources.
Since mesquite grows so fast, and has such a great root system, it is important in preventing erosion in sandy and nutrient-poor soil. And, since it does well in alkaline soil and is drought-tolerant, it is an ideal tree to grow in the arid southwest.
Mesquite does have a number of critics, particularly ranchers and farmers, who see mesquite as a noxious weed. They believe that it competes for water and nutrients with other beneficial species. Therefore there has been an active attempt to eradicate the plant in some areas of the southwest, particularly west Texas.
There are three widely distributed species of mesquite: the screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens); honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), and velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina). All three species are deciduous and have narrow, very pointed leaves two to three inches long. There are eight other species, most existing in solely in Mexico.
Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubsecens)
As the name implies, the brown-yellow bean pod of the tree resembles a screw. The pods are about two inches long. The spiked limbs are often intertwined as well. The plant can reach 20 feet high, and the trunk can have a diameter of up to eight inches. The smooth bark separates into long strips, which Native Americans used for making baskets and rope. The leaves are a dull green. It blooms from May until August. Three-eighths inch flowers grow in bracts about two inches long.
Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)
This species can grow up to 30 feet with a relatively large trunk. It blooms in April and may do so again in late summer. The small, very fragrant flowers are yellowish-green. They are spiked and up to four inches long. The fruit is slender and brownish and may grow to eight inches.
Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) This tree may grow up to 20 feet tall. It has long (three-inch) spines. The bark is smooth when the plant is young, but it changes to a rougher bark as it ages. Blooming time for honey mesquite is May. The beautiful though small cream-yellow flowers are one one-fourth of an inch long and very fragrant.