The Ubiquitous Mesquite
“I could ask for no better monument over my grave than a good mesquite tree, its roots down deep like those of people who belong to the soil, its hardy branches, leaves and fruit holding memories of the soil. . . .”
— J. Frank Dobie, Texas writer
[Mesquite is] “the devil with roots. It scabs my cows, spooks my horses, and gives little shade.”
— W.T. Waggoner, pioneer northwest Texas rancher
Opinions of 21st-century Texans on the subject of mesquite are as divided as the two 20th-century views quoted above:
• Ranchers consider it a noxious weed, whose thorns injure cattle, horses and cowhands. Worst of all, its extensive root system uses more than its fair share of water, which otherwise could grow cattle-nourishing grasses.
• Botanists know mesquite (genus Prosopis), a member of the legume family, as a nitrogen-fixing plant. Rather than depleting the soil of nitrogen, as do most plants, mesquites enrich soil by returning nitrogen to it.
• Most gardeners wouldn’t consider using the misshapen mesquite in their landscapes.
• Cooks value mesquite chips and charcoal for the luscious flavor they impart to grilled meats and fish.
• Some artisans and furniture makers prize mesquite for its deep colors, rich patina and interesting irregularities.
The ubiquitous mesquite grows — nay, flourishes — on at least one-third of the land area of the state; that is, on more than 56 million of Texas’ 167.5 million acres of land, from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle, across Central and North Central Texas, and into much of West Texas. Mesquite grows in all regions of the state except the East Texas Piney Woods. Of all the mesquite in the United States, 76 percent grows in Texas.
Of the more than 40 species of mesquite found worldwide, at least 90 percent grows in Latin America, principally Argentina and Chile. Mesquite also thrives in arid and semi-arid regions of North America, Africa, the Middle East, Tunisia, Algeria, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar (Burma), Russia, Hawaii, West Indies, Puerto Rico and Australia.
Seven varieties of mesquite grow in Texas. The most widely distributed is Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa, also called honey mesquite, found in all regions of Texas except deep East Texas. In this article, unless noted otherwise, that is the variety being discussed.
Mesquite trees vary tremendously in size, depending on growing conditions. Where water is plentiful, and if the seedlings are not injured by weather or animals, trees may grow 40 to 50 feet tall, with a spread of 40 feet or more. The trunk forks only a few feet above the ground. If a new shoot is disturbed, the plant develops into a sprawling multi-trunked shrub.
The leaves are delicate and feathery. Sharp, tough-as-nails thorns, up to two inches long, emerge from the base of the leaf stems. The fluffy, creamy-white flowers, which often have a greenish or yellowish cast, appear from spring to autumn. The beans, which mature in late summer, develop in a pod between four and nine inches long. When ripe, the beans are covered by a sweetish coating, which has a sugar content as high as 30 percent. This author can personally attest that they are delicious to chew (you chew the coating off the beans, not the beans themselves) as a substitute for the candy your parents won’t let you have.
Mesquite beans furnish food for livestock when grass is scarce. The trees also provide shade, such as it is, for the animals. In the 1840s, a traveler in Texas said that “to find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.” But in much of Texas, it’s often the only shade around.
Mesquites supply food and cover for wildlife including quail, dove, raven, turkey, mallard duck, white-tail and mule deer, wood rat, kangaroo rat, chipmunk, pocket mouse, rock squirrel, ground squirrel, prairie dog, porcupine, cottontail, jackrabbit, skunk, peccary (javelina), coyote and Mexican raccoon.
Mesquite Survival Tactics
Mesquite has several characteristics that help it survive.
• It adapts to almost any soil that is not soggy.
• Mesquite beans can lie dormant for many years—some say up to 40 years—waiting for the right conditions for sprouting.
• Taproots of mesquites are legendary, growing seemingly as deep as needed to reach the water table—often 25 to 65 feet in length. In Texas Highways magazine in 1979, Steve Wilson, then director of the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Oklahoma, reported some mesquite taproots a phenomenal 175 feet long. By contrast, the taproots of most large Texas hardwoods, such as oaks and hickories, reach a maximum of three to seven feet. The longleaf pine, an exceptionally long-rooted tree, has a taproot of only 12 to 15 feet. The mesquite’s lateral roots may fan out up to 50 feet in all directions.
• Most of Texas’ deciduous trees produce new leaves in late March or early April, putting them at risk of being nipped by a late freeze. The mesquite is one of the last trees to leaf out, usually in May, and therefore is rarely hurt by spring cold snaps. Texas farmers in the 19th and early 20th centuries often waited for mesquites to green up each spring before planting cotton or setting out tomato plants, believing that their crops would therefore be safe from freezing.
History of Mesquites in Texas
The Aztecs called it mizquitl, which the Spaniards Hispanicized into mesquite. Early Anglo-Texans spelled the word in a variety of ways: mesquit, mezquit, muskeet and musquit.
Historians once believed that mesquite was originally limited to extreme South Texas and spread north only after the Civil War when cattle drives became frequent. Cattle eat mesquite beans when grass is not plentiful. The bean’s husks are so hard that about 50 percent of them travel through cattle’s digestive systems unscathed, to be deposited on the ground with a large helping of natural fertilizer. The historians figured that cattle distributed seeds along the trails as they went north.
But well before the heyday of cattle drives, mesquite was growing in the same areas where it is found today. Mesquite trees were part of Texas’ landscape long before Spanish explorers, in the early 1500s, first recorded finding them, mainly along Texas’ rivers, creeks and draws, but also completely covering some prairies. What has increased since then is not the range, but the density.
The primary reasons for the density increase seem to be the actions of the ranchers themselves:
Control of prairie fires: When unchecked, naturally occurring prairie fires kept mesquite in check. Control of fires as settlers populated the prairies allowed mesquites to grow at will.
Overgrazing: Whether done by cattle, sheep or goats, overgrazing strips native grasses from the land, leaving it bare and open to mesquite invasion.
A bulldozer drags a mesquite.
Eradication of prairie dogs: Range specialists believe that prairie dogs inhibit the spread of mesquite by eating beans, pods and tender new shoots. In 1905, an estimated 800 million prairie dogs inhabited an area of about 90,000 square miles in Texas. But because they competed with cattle for grasses, ranchers, aided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, poisoned almost all wild prairie dogs in Texas beginning in the early 1900s. Recent estimates put the Texas prairie-dog population at about 2.2 million.
Today’s ranchers are still waging the long-running “Great Mesquite Wars” using a formidable array of weapons: diesel oil, bulldozers dragging heavy chains, chemical sprays, prescribed burns and root plowing. Some win occasional costly battles. Overall, though, the mesquite is still winning the war.
Early Uses of Mesquite
As Plains Indians used all parts of the bison, Southwestern Indians used all parts of the tree: beans, bean pods, leaves, roots, trunk, limbs, bark and gum.
Perhaps the first written description of mesquite’s uses among Texas Indians was by Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. Shipwrecked and cast up on the Texas Gulf Coast in 1528, Cabeza de Vaca and several companions lived a nomadic life for six years, much of it as Indian captives, before escaping to a Spanish outpost in Mexico. In his journal, he recorded that the natives pounded mesquite-bean pods with a wooden pestle in a dirt hole, mixed the resulting meal with some of the dirt and added water to make a kind of mush.
Later European explorers and Anglo settlers reported Southwestern Indians using mesquite in these ways:
A drink called atole was made from a decoction of ground beans and water. Fermenting it produced a mildly intoxicating drink—bean beer, so to speak.
Trunks and limbs were used for shelters and fencing.
Aztecs made a lotion to soothe sore eyes from ground mesquite leaves mixed with water. Yuma Indians treated venereal disease with an infusion of leaves, and Comanches relieved toothaches by chewing the leaves. Yaquis treated headaches with a poultice made from mashing leaves to a pulp, mixing them with water and binding the mixture to the forehead.
Gum, or sap, that oozed from mesquite bark was mixed with water to treat sore throats and diarrhea, aid digestion, and help wounds heal. The Yavapai rubbed a mixture of mud and mesquite gum into their hair to simultaneously kill lice and dye their hair.
Roots provided a reliable source of fuel in the generally treeless desert Southwest.
Dye and Glue
The light-amber colored gum that oozes from mesquite bark in the fall was used as a glue to mend pottery. Indian women made cuts in the bark to gather a darker gum, full of tannins, to use as hair dye or to decorate bark clothing.
Indian women pounded bark into flat sheets of fiber for clothing.
Papago Indians used a ball made of mesquite wood or gum about the size of a croquet ball in a footrace game. Pimas used mesquite sticks and Maricopas used a mesquite ball in games similar to field hockey.
Other Tools and Equipment
Southwestern Indians used mesquite wood or root fiber to fashion harpoons, harpoon cords, bowstrings, cradles, and agricultural tools including weed cutters and planters. Mesquite gum glued arrow points and feathers onto arrow shafts, and it waterproofed the insides and outsides of basket-jars for carrying water.
Mexicans fattened cattle and hogs on mesquite beans and pods. Rural Mexican women whitened their clothes by boiling mesquite leaves along with clothing in their wash pots.
Mesquite Uses by Settlers
Early settlers in Texas favored mesquite wood for fences because not only was it plentiful, but it also resisted rotting. Before commercial barbed wire came to Texas in the mid-1870s, ranchers built sturdy corrals from mesquite-log picket fences. Travelers fashioned hubs and spokes for wagon wheels from mesquite, as well as ribs for small boats. Railroad crews used mesquite logs and roots as boiler fuel.
During the Civil War when coffee was scarce, Texans made ersatz coffee from roasted and ground mesquite beans, in addition to okra seeds, wheat, corn or acorns. They boiled dried mesquite leaves to make tea. Honey made from mesquite-flower pollen was especially prized.
In the absence of pins, settlers often substituted mesquite thorns.
The 1870 Texas Almanac included an article by Dr. John E. Park of Seguin, asserting that “mesquit” made a “superior tanning material.” During the Civil War, Texans had to manufacture many of the goods that they normally bought elsewhere, including leather. Dr. Park tested the barks of various Texas trees; mesquite was the richest in tannic acid, a substance used to tan leather. He extracted the tannins by chopping the wood and boiling it in water.
Dr. Park reported that not only was the quality of mesquite-tanned leather superior to that of leather tanned with other concoctions, but mesquite tannin also penetrated the leather exceptionally fast. More commonly used tanning agents worked so slowly that the center of a hide might rot before the tannin could penetrate it, especially in Texas’ hot summers. Mesquite tannins worked fast enough that leather was seldom lost to decomposition, and tanning operations were not limited to winter months.
The U.S. Patent Office granted Dr. Park U.S. Patent No. 51,407 on Dec. 5, 1865, for his tanning method using mesquite.
In 1872, the United States Dispensatory reported that confectioners in the eastern United States bought 24,000 pounds of Texas mesquite gum to use in the manufacture of gumdrops.
In the late 1880s, the first streets to be paved in San Antonio—Alamo Plaza and surrounding streets—were surfaced with hexagonal creosote-treated mesquite blocks. When soaked with rain, the blocks swelled enough to push some of them up above the surface of the street, making for a rough ride. Even so, the city council in late 1891 voted to pave streets around Military Plaza—including parts of Market, St. Mary’s, Treviño, Flores, Dolorosa and West Commerce—in a similar manner.
Although ranchers are still trying to annihilate mesquite, a dedicated group of about 250 Texans can’t get enough of it. They are mostly artisans who value mesquite for its beauty, the ease with which it can be worked and the high sheen of finished pieces. Some even prize its irregularities.
Mesquite has a swirling grain, radial cracks, mineral deposits in the bark, and often many insect holes, which make working it a challenge. Finding a large, intact piece is almost impossible. But mesquite is dimensionally stable: As most hardwoods dry, they shrink more in one direction than they do in the other. Mesquite shrinks the same percentage in both directions. It has a surface hardness of 2,336 pounds per square inch, equal to that of hickory and almost twice that of oak and maple, and a density of 45 pounds per foot, greater than oak, maple, pecan and hickory.
Artisans use mesquite today for furniture, flooring, “turned” (on a lathe) and carved decorative items, and an array of other articles from golf clubs to jewelry. Companies produce chips and chunks that restaurant chefs and home cooks across the country use to flavor grilled meats.
Turnings and Carvings
Some mesquite crafters use lathes or their own carving skills to create everything from heirloom rocking horses to guitars, plus smaller decorative items: jewelry boxes, desk sets, vases, bowls and kitchen utensils.
Finding mesquite pieces large enough to make into furniture is difficult — less so if you prefer rustic furniture and don’t mind having the imperfections on view. However, artisans creating fine furniture sometimes go through many cords of mesquite to find enough usable wood to make a chair, a desk or a table.
Mesquite’s deep, rich, red-brown wood makes exquisite floors, using either planks, as in a standard hardwood floor, or cross-grain blocks. The cross-grain pieces are more than 50 percent harder than flat-sawn planks, with swirls and radial cracks that make each one unique. The lobby and mezzanine of the Hilton Palacio del Rio in San Antonio are floored with mesquite.
Is it a furniture, flooring, and artisan’s treasure or is it a noxious weed? Whether you swear by mesquite, or swear at it, there is no doubt that it is here to stay.
— written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 2006–2007.