MESQUITE
Check out my great Mesquite
Bean Jelly recipe at the bottom
of the page!  It's delicious and
tastes like honey.
Mesquite is the most common shrub/small tree of the Desert
Southwest. Like many members of the Legume Family
(called Fabaceae these days), mesquite restores nitrogen to
the soil. There are 3 common species of mesquite: Honey
Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Screwbean Mesquite
(Prosopis pubescens ) and Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis
velutina).
All 3 are deciduous and have characteristic bean pods which have long
been used by humans, wildlife and livestock as a food source. It is
estimated that over 75% of a Coyote's diet in late summer is mesquite
beans.

Native Americans relied on the mesquite pod as a dietary staple from
which they made tea, syrup and a ground meal called pinole. They also
used the bark for basketry, fabrics and medicine. A favorite of bees and
other insects, mesquite flowers produce a fragrant honey.

The taproots, which can be larger than the trunk, are often dug up for
firewood. Next to Ironwood, mesquite is the best firewood of the desert,
because it burns slowly and is smokeless. The wood is also used for
fence posts, tool handles and to create aromatic charcoal for barbecuing.

Cattlemen regard mesquite as range weeds and eradicate them, but
much of the invasion of mesquite into former grasslands, where it did not
grow a century ago, is due to overgrazing.

Range
Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts from western Texas, west to
extreme southwestern Utah, southeastern California and adjoining
Mexico.

Habitat
Alongside desert washes and streams, plains and hillsides, often in
thickets below 5,500 feet.

Description
Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)

Honey Mesquite is a shrub or small tree characterized by 8-inch,
bean-like pods and 3-inc spines occurring at large nodes on branches. It
reaches a height of 20 feet; the trunk may be up to 12 inches in diameter.

Honey Mesquite has smooth, brown bark that roughens with age.
Narrow, bipinnately compound leaves 2 to 3 inches long are sharply
pointed. They are yellowish green in color with oblong leaflets 1/8" wide
and 1 1/4" long.

Honey Mesquite blooms in May displaying 1/4-inch long fragrant, creamy
yellow flowers in narrow 3-inch clusters. The fruit is a flat, narrow,
yellow-green pod up to 8 inches long and ending in a point.

Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens)

The Screwbean Mesquite is a shrub or small tree characterized by
2-inch, screw-like pods and spiny, twisted branches. It reaches a height
of 20 feet; the trunk may be up to 8 inches in diameter.

The Screwbean Mesquite has light-brown to reddish, smooth bark that
separates into long, shaggy strips. Narrow, bipinnately compound leaves
2 to 3 inches long are sharply pointed. They are dull green in color and
slightly hairy containing 5 to 8 pairs of oblong leaflets 1/8" wide and 3/8"
long.

The Screwbean Mesquite blooms May through August displaying many
crowded, 2-inch clusters of 3/8-inch light yellow flowers. The fruit is a
hard, 2-inch, spiraled, brown-to-yellow pod with sweet pulp.

Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)

Velvet Mesquite is a larger shrub or medium-size tree characterized by
straight, 2-inch spines on the branches. Often growing in dense thickets,
it is larger than the other species, reaching a height of 30 feet; the trunk
may be up to 24 inches in diameter.

Velvet Mesquite has dark-brown, smooth bark that separates into long,
shaggy strips. Narrow, bipinnately compound leaves 2 to 3 inches long
are sharply pointed. They are dull green in color with gray hairs.

Velvet Mesquite blooms in April, and sometimes again in August,
displaying small, fragrant, greenish yellow flowers in slender, cylindrical
spikes up to 4 inches long. The fruit is a slender, brown pod up to 8
inches long.

Medical studies of mesquite and other desert foods, said that despite its
sweetness, mesquite flour (made by grinding whole pods) "is extremely
effective in controlling blood sugar levels" in people with diabetes. The
sweetness comes from fructose, which the body can process without
insulin. In addition, soluble fibers, such as galactomannin gum, in the
seeds and pods slow absorption of nutrients, resulting in a flattened
blood sugar curve, unlike the peaks that follow consumption of wheat
flour, corn meal and other common staples.

"The gel-forming fiber allows foods to be slowly digested and absorbed
over a four- to six-hour period, rather than in one or two hours, which
produces a rapid rise in blood sugar,"
Like the Coyote, the Black-tail Jackrabbit, the
Western Diamondback, scorpions, the Saguaro and
prickly pear cacti, the mesquites symbolize our
Southwestern deserts.  Like the Indian peoples and
the Hispanic and Anglo settlers, the mesquites define
the very notions of individuality, adaptability,
opportunism, toughness and stubbornness.  Occurring
as respectable trees or as small shrubs, they cover a
monumental range, spanning tens of millions of acres
from the southern Rolling Plains and the Texas Gulf
Coast westward across the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and
Mojave Deserts.  They prosper in a diversity of
habitats, from humid and sandy coastal plains to the
grassy prairies to perennial and intermittent stream
beds to desert basin shrub lands and dunes to flattop
mesas to mile-high rocky mountain slopes.
The mesquites, including the
three species in our
Southwestern deserts, belong
to the legume family, which
ranks near the top of plants
especially adapted to an arid
environment.  Typically, the
legumes, which have woody
stems and branches, produce
bipinnately compound leaves
(leaves with two or more
secondary veins, each with
two rows of leaflets).  They
bear flowers that have five
petals.  They produce
abundant large seedpods that
serve as a nutritious food
source for wildlife.  They grow
wide-spreading and
deep-reaching root systems
that host colonies of bacteria
that can fix nitrogen, one of
the minerals most important to
plant germination and growth.
Our three species of mesquites, which include
the Honey Mesquite, the Velvet Mesquite and
the Screwbean Mesquite, share various
characteristics.  They range from a few feet to
10 to 15 feet in height, although the Honey and
Velvet Mesquites may reach 30 to 60 feet in
especially favorable settings.  They may have
single or multiple-branched stems, with each
plant assuming its own distinctive shape.  They
come armed with thorns on the smaller
branches.  They shed their leaves in the winter.  
They bloom from spring into summer, bearing
small frothy-looking clusters – called “catkins” –
of tiny, five-petal, pale green or yellowish
flowers, which lure numerous pollinating
insects.  They produce pods that contain hard
and long-lasting seeds that must be scarified
before they will germinate.  Mesquites have
lateral roots that extend far beyond the canopies
of the plants and taproots that penetrate well
below the surface of the soil.  Some mesquites
may live for more than two centuries, according
to Thomas B. Wilson, Robert H. Webb and
Thomas L. Thompson, U. S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service, General Technical
Report RMRS-GTR-8.
The Honey Mesquite, distinguished by
smooth-surfaced leaflets, makes its primary
home in the Chihuahuan Desert, east of the
Continental Divide, although its outer range
extends across the Sonoran Desert as well.   
The closely related Velvet Mesquite, marked
by velvet-surfaced leaflets, has as its primary
residence the Sonoran Desert, west of the
Continental Divide.  The Screwbean
Mesquite, identified by its tightly spiraled
bean pods, has established as its basic
range the northern Sonoran Desert up into
the Mojave Desert.  Where distributions of
the species overlap, the plants hybridize,
often making identification difficult, according
to Wilson and his co-authors
.
From crown to root tips, the
mesquites have evolved a number
of adaptations especially designed
to help assure survival in the desert
environment.  Their thorns, sharply
pointed and strong, challenge
browsing by desert herbivores.  
(“They will not decay in the flesh or
gristle as will prickly pear thorns,”
Dobie said, “but will last longer than
any flesh in which they become
embedded.”)  Their leaves, small
and wax coated, minimize
transpiration (evaporation of the
plant’s water into the atmosphere).  
During extreme drought, the
mesquites may shed their leaves to
further conserve moisture.  Their
flowers, fragrant and delicate,
attract the insects, especially the
bees, necessary for prolific
pollination.  Their seeds, abundant
and protectively coated, may last
for decades, serving as seed
banks that improve the odds for
wide distribution and successful
germination.

Most notably, mesquites’ root
systems give the plants a
competitive botanical edge in the
desert landscape.  As hosts to
nitrogen-fixing bacteria, they help
enrich otherwise impoverished
desert soils in which the plants and
their progeny grow.  In lateral reach,
they out compete other plants in the
battle for soil moisture.  In their
taproots’ downward reach, they find
subsurface water, sometimes 150
to perhaps 200 feet below the
surface.  According to the Arizona-
Sonora Desert Museum Internet
site, “The mesquite’s root system is
the deepest documented; a live
root was discovered in a copper
mine over 160 feet (50 meters)
below the surface.”
During the Ice Ages, which lasted from about
1.8 million to some 10,000 years ago, the
mesquites “coevolved with large herbivores,
such as mastodons and ground sloths, which
ate the pods and then dispersed them widely
in their feces,” said the Arizona-Sonora Desert
Museum Internet site.  The mesquites found
the arrangement to be ideal.  The seeds
became scarified by mastication, preparing
them for germination.  Seed parasites died
when exposed to the animals’ gut juices.  The
seeds found moisture and nutrients in the
animals’ dung.  It proved to be a perfect
formula for expansion.

Over time, the mesquites expanded their
range to correspond largely with the
herbivores’ range, which extended from flood
plains and washes up into prairies, mesas and
mountain slopes.  When the Ice Ages ended,
however, the large herbivores died out,
becoming extinct, and rainfall diminished.  
Deprived of their animal agents for distribution
and faced with intensifying competition for
water and nutrients, mesquites retreated to
the flood plains and washes, forfeiting the
higher elevation landscapes to the grasses.   
Further, the mesquites remained contained by
frequent wildfires fueled by the grasses, which
recovered within a season.

When European descendants moved into the
desert Southwest, mesquites found a new ally,
domesticated livestock, especially the cattle.  
The new herbivores not only ate and
dispersed the pods, the great livestock herds
stripped away the desert grasses, eliminating
competition and wildfire fuel.  In many areas,
the opportunistic mesquites moved in to
displace grasses.  They reclaimed much of
their Ice Age range, expanding from the flood
plains and washes again up into prairies,
mesas and mountain slopes.  Mesquites grew
up along the historic cattle trails, defining the
routes to this day.  In fact, mesquites have
become established in borrow ditches along
modern desert roadways traveled by cattle
trucks.

Mesquites as Botanical Enemies

The mesquites’ encroachment into pasture
lands and displacement of grasses have
frustrated cattlemen, who unwittingly fostered
the advance in the first place by overgrazing.  
“Because dense mesquite out competes grass
for water and light and because mesquite
groves don’t support fire, this conversion if
permanent (on a human time scale) without
physical intervention,” according to the
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Internet site.

The mesquites have largely thwarted any
attempt at control, including, for instance,
planned burns, herbicides or physical
removal—all methods that mean high cost and
potential environmental damage.


For instance, “Fire has been used as a
management tool to control mesquite
distribution for decades” said Wilson and his
associates.  However, one authority
“determined that within 5 years of a fire in
southern Arizona [mesquite] biomass [the total
dry weight of the mesquite population] had
attained preburn levels.”  The mesquites may
succumb to frequently repeated burns but so
do the native grasses, making way for
imported invasive species such as the
extremely aggressive Lehmann lovegrass.

Herbicides, usually applied by aircraft, have
also been used for decades in attempts to
control the mesquites.  However, “To
completely remove mesquite or at least limit its
spread in open rangeland using herbicides
only, multiple treatments are required;
otherwise, the long-term viability of mesquite
seeds and their abundance with the seed
bank would ensure continual recruitment,”
said Wilson and associates.  Moreover,
“These multiple applications could create
adverse side effects to rangeland species
diversity and biomass…  With the attendant
costs of herbicides and aerial application over
large areas, a viable long-term management
strategy using only herbicides may be
impractical.”

Physical removal – by methods such as
dozing, root plowing, chaining, roller chopping
or shredding – has reduced mesquite density
in pasture lands for brief periods, but the
plants soon re-sprout from their bases, more
dense than ever.  Moreover, said Wilson and
his fellow authors, “driving large mechanical
equipment through rangeland can cause soil
compaction, crush animals, destroy animal
burrows, and uproot desirable plant species
such as perennial grasses.”

“The white man,” said Dobie, “sowed with
over-grazing; he is now reaping thickets of
mesquites that are stabbing millions of acres
of land into non-productiveness.”
If mesquites have arrived as
intruders in the view of cattlemen of
the Southwest, they have, by
contrast, long been a welcome
presence in the larders, livestock
feed bins, workshops, gardens and
medicine cabinets in the perspective
of many desert residents.

Cabeza de Vaca, in his Adventures
in the Unknown Interior of America
(translated and edited by Cyclone
Covey), said that “The Indian
method of preparing [mesquite
beans] is to dig a fairly deep hole in
the ground, throw in the beans, and
pound them with a club the
thickness of a leg and a fathom and
a half long, until they are well
mashed.  Besides the earth that
gets mixed in from the bottom and
sides of the hole, the Indians add
some handfuls, then pound awhile
longer.  They throw the meal into a
basket-like jar and pour water on it
until it is covered

“Then all squat round, and each
takes out as much as he can with
one hand.  To the partakers, the
dish is a great banquet”

During the inevitable droughts and
deprivations of desert frontier days,
the mesquite trees served up the
primary food source for caravans
and settlers.  Mesquite beans
became “manna from heaven” for
the suffering men of the 1841 Texas
Santa Fe Expedition said George
W. Kendall (quoted by Ken E.
Rogers in The Magnificent
Mesquite) in his journal.  “When our
provisions and coffee ran out, the
men ate [mesquite beans] in
immense quantities, and roasted or
boiled them!”  During the Civil War,
when groceries often ran short,
mesquite beans served as passable
coffee.  Mesquite blooms, pollinated
by bees, yield a connoisseur’s
honey.  

Mesquite beans, durable enough for
years of storage, became the
livestock feed of choice when
pasture land grasses failed due to
drought or overgrazing.  They were
carried by early freighters, who fed
the beans to their draft animals,
especially in Mexico.

Although often crooked in shape,
mesquite tree branches, stable and
durable, filled needs for wood during
the construction of Spanish
missions, and colonial haciendas,
ranch houses and fencing.  Its wood
serves artisans in the crafting of
furniture, flooring, paneling and
sculptures.  “Of the tree mesquite,”
said Dobie, “there is one kind of
yellowish wood and another of a
deep reddish hue as beautiful when
polished as the richest mahogany.”  
In some areas, mesquites provide a
bountiful harvest of wood for use in
fireplaces and barbecue grills.

Mesquites, requiring little water and
only low maintenance, have found a
place in Southwest xeriscaped
gardens and parks.  They not only
produce beans and blooms that
attract wildlife, they provide perches
and nesting sites for birds, including
even hummingbirds.

In the frontier days, according to
Dobie, the mesquites were used by
the Indians and the settlers as a
source of many remedies for a host
of ailments.   The mesquite root, or
bark, tea, Indians and settlers
believed, cured diarrhea.  Boiled
mesquite roots yielded a soothing
balm that cured colic and healed
flesh wounds.  Mesquite leaves,
crushed and mixed with water and
urine, cured headaches.  Mesquite
gum preparations soothed ailing
eyes, eased a sore throat, cleared
up dysentery and relieved
headaches.
Note Medical studies of mesquite and other desert
foods, said that despite its sweetness, mesquite flour
(made by grinding whole pods) "is extremely effective
in controlling blood sugar levels" in people with
diabetes. The sweetness comes from fructose, which
the body can process without insulin. In addition,
soluble fibers, such as galactomannin gum, in the
seeds and pods slow absorption of nutrients, resulting
in a flattened blood sugar curve, unlike the peaks that
follow consumption of wheat flour, corn meal and other
common staples.

"The gel-forming fiber allows foods to be slowly
digested and absorbed over a four- to six-hour
period, rather than in one or two hours, which
produces a rapid rise in blood sugar,"
Mesquite Bean Jelly

Ingredients:  
3 cups juice
1/4 cup lemon juice
4 1/2 cups sugar
1 box Sure Jell

Instructions:  Gather fully ripe mesquite
beans (When they have turned a tan color
and begun to drop from the tree)
Immerse in water for a time so that any
bugs that are in or on the pods will crawl
out and can be removed.  I never harvest
the pods from the ground, these tend to
have lots of bugs.  When the pods are
ripe, you can easily pull them from the
tree.  
{be careful harvesting the pods,
remember the mesquite tree has thorns!}

Drain and put in a pot and cover with
water.  Cook until soft.  You may have to
add water while cooking to get them soft
(it takes a while).  After the pods have
become soft, and simmered a while, you
will see the water is a beautiful honey
color.  I just let mine simmer until it is a
deep rich honey color, then using tongs I
remove the pods from the pot. (I threw the
used pods into my compost pile and
recycled them)

Strain the juice through a jelly bag, or
muslin cloth.  I prefer the muslin cloth
because I can double it up and really
strain the juice thoroughly.

Take 3 cups of the strained juice, add the
1/4 cup lemon juice, and box of Sure Jell.  
Bring the mixture to a full, rolling boil;
gradually add the 4 1/2 cups sugar, stirring
until it is well dissolved.  Continue
cooking, stirring occasionally,  until the
liquid reaches the jelly stage.

Spoon into hot sterile jars and seal with
paraffin or two-part lids.

I sterilize my jars and rings in the
dishwasher, but wash the lids with hot
soapy water in the sink.  You do not want
to ruin the rubber seal on the lids.

I do not have a canner, so I place my jars
in a pot of water.  Once the jars are in the
pot, the water level should be about
halfway up the outside of the jars.  Any
more than this and the jars try and float
and fall over.  I bring the water too a slow
boil before spooning in the hot jelly
mixture.

Spoon the hot jelly mixture into the hot
jars, be careful not to get any jelly on the
rim of the jar, this could impede an airtight
seal when you put on the lids.  If you do
get some liquid on the rim, simple wipe it
off with a damp rag, or paper towel.
Fill the jars with the hot jelly mixture, but
remember to leave about a 1/4 inch of
head space between the jelly and the lid.
Once the jelly is in the jars I remove them
from the hot water bath with a jar lifter or
tongs.  Immediately place on the lids and
screw the rings into place for a tight seal.

Let the sealed jars sit and cool at room
temperature.  After a while you should
hear the lids popping as they suck down.  
This means you have a good air tight
seal.  If a jars lid does not suck down, you
have not achieved the seal necessary for
preservation.  Once cooled the jelly is still
good, but you will need to keep these jars
in the refrigerator or else they will spoil.

Enjoy!
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Native Americans made cordage
from the fibers of the yucca
cactus.  Once this very strong
cordage was made, they could
use it too weave baskets, ropes,
snares, etc.
To separate the individual fibers
from the yucca cactus leaf they
used a variety of methods.  When
I was taught this ancient
technique, I was advised to use a
needle.  The needle method
worked, but I wanted to stick with
what I thought would be a more
traditional method so I thought
about an alternative.  If I was
living in the past and did not have
a needle, what else could I use?
My solution was to use a thorn
from the Mesquite Tree.  What I
found was that the Mesquite
Thorn actually worked better then
a needle, so from that moment on
all of my Yucca baskets were
made using a mesquite thorn.