GV Gardeners: Valued Mesquite trees in the Sonoran Desert

Throughout the Santa Cruz Valley, fallen pods currently cover the ground beneath native Velvet Mesquite trees.

Many residents dislike the continuous debris provided by Mesquite trees (Prosopis spec.) in their landscape. Earlier in the year there appear multiple fuzz-covered flowers, some of which drop to the ground. Next they spread fine, dust-like pollen; then small, hard-to-pick-up stems drop throughout.

Currently streets, sidewalks and the ground are covered with thousands of fallen tan pods. How valuable can these messy desert trees be?

In our desert, Mesquites are now in the pod-dropping stage. Since these do not all fall at once, the removal task can go on for a long time. When you pick up fallen pods, you may notice small holes in them. Bruchid beetles entered the pods when in the tender, larval period. The holes were consequently made by mature beetles exiting the pod.

Mesquite debris is an important food source for a variety of wildlife. Jackrabbits, ground squirrels, wild turkeys, javelinas, mule deer, and coyotes all feed on Mesquite leaves, flowers, and seeds. When available during summer, the pods make up 80 percent of the coyote diet.

Both the pods and seeds inside can be ground into meal which is gluten free. The pods are extremely sweet which comes from fructose, which does not require insulin to be metabolized. Seeds contain 35 percent protein; pods consist of 25 percent fiber. Research shows that mesquite meal, with its low glycemic index of 25, helps regulate blood sugar levels.

Flavor of the pods varies from tree to tree. Although taste is subjective, studies have found that non-native Chilean Mesquite pods often have a chalky flavor reminiscent of Pepto-Bismol, whereas native Velvet, Screwbean, and Honey Mesquites have a more fruit-like taste and are rarely considered chalky.

Native Americans have valued the Mesquite tree for a variety of purposes. The tree’s black tar sap was boiled and diluted with water to make eye wash, antiseptic for open wounds, chapped skin, sunburn, and sore lips. Pimas used the black tar to dye their hair.

Boiling the inner bark produced a liquid used as a laxative. Mesquite flowers were boiled for a refreshing tea. A tea made from the leaves was used for headaches, stomach trouble, and healing of gum pain. For special occasions, a mixture of water and mesquite flour was allowed to ferment, producing an effervescent alcoholic drink.

Resin from the tree was used by Native Americans as a glue for mending broken pottery. When diluted and boiled, it could also be used as a paint pigment for the pottery.

Today Mesquite flour is seasonally available at specialty groceries in the Tucson area, commonly at a cost from $14 to $20 per pound.

By now it must be apparent that debris-producing Mesquite trees have been and continue to be a valuable asset to the desert environment. Keep this in mind when perusing the quantities of tan pods decorating the landscape!

Mary Kidnocker is a University of Arizona Master Gardener who lives in the Green Valley area. Her articles are featured weekly.