Mesquite. It conjures visions of tasty, smoky, barbecue for some. For the rancher, it evokes thoughts of work and never-ending brush control in the pasture and fodder for cattle in times of drought. For the carpenter, sleek furniture with stunning wood grain of reddish-orange hues comes to mind.
There are many uses for mesquite today and, historically, there were many more. Mesquite may be viewed as a nuisance by some, but for the people of centuries past, mesquite was a necessity.
There are several different species of mesquite in Texas with Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) being the most common in our area. Experts do not agree on the prehistoric range of mesquite, but they do agree that cattle, fire suppression and land management practices amplified the range as far north as Kansas.
An eighteenth century Spanish Friar, Fray Isidro de Espinosa, imparted how important the mesquite bean was to Indians in Coahuila and Nuevo Leon: “When green, the bean was wrapped in a large green leaf and eaten or made into a drink. The Indians also sun-dried the bean, ground it and made it into a paste that could be kept for a year.”
In 1768, Fray Gaspar Jose de Solis conducted an inspection tour of Zacatecan Missions in Texas. In his diary, he wrote about mesquite on his route between Laredo and Mission Espiritu Santo in Goliad. It is clear that mesquite has been in our area for over 300 years.
Mesquite may be best known for its perseverance and strength. It often thrives in extreme heat and drought conditions, continuing to provide wood, fuel and food. The wood does not degrade quickly when in contact with soil, so it has been used for fence posts, railroad ties, wagon wheels and various tools. The dense wood is also an excellent fuel, burning evenly and hot. Spines have been used as sewing needles, while roots and bark have traditionally been used to make cordage.
Mesquite trees produce two types of sap. Historical accounts indicate that Native Americans and early settlers used the brown sap as a dye for textiles, face paint, an emulsifier and hair dye with the added benefit of reportedly killing lice. They also reportedly used the white sap as a form of candy.
The Native Americans of the Southwest relied on mesquite as a vital source of food. Green pods were boiled to make syrup. Ripe pods collected in the late summer or early fall were dried and ground into flour, while the hard seeds and seed casings (endocarps) were soaked in water to make a sweet beverage.
The dried pods could also be stored for several months in anticipation of future food scarcity. Interestingly enough, pods from individual trees can vary from sweet to very bitter and modern studies show that mesquite pods have double the sucrose as sugarcane. Native Americans gave preference to trees that produced the sweetest pods and family groups often returned to the same trees for years to harvest the delicious bounty.
In the second part of this two-part series, we will experiment with making mesquite-honey cookies and mesquite jelly.