Mesquite Trees Provide Food and a Pharmacy

The ethnobotany of Mesquite trees is extensive. The trees provide food, medicine, beverages, glue, hair dye, firewood, and furniture. Mesquites coevolved with large herbivores such as mammoths, mastodons, and ground sloths, which ate the pods and dispersed them widely. When these Pleistocene animals became extinct, mesquites retreated to flood plains and washes where water and weathering scarified the seeds and aided germination. The introduction of cattle helped to expand the range of mesquites once again.

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Use as food

Mesquite beans are usually harvested after they turn hard and golden. Both the pods and the seeds (which are very tough) are ground into meal. The native people sprinkled the ground meal with a little water to form small, round cakes. Later, slices of dried cake were fried like mush, used to thicken stews, or eaten raw. The meal is also used as flour to make flat bread. Mesquite meal is gluten free.

The pods of mesquite beans are very sweet and the sweetness comes from fructose which doesn’t require insulin to be metabolized. The seeds contain about 35% protein, much more than soybeans. Mesquite pods contain about 25% fiber. Some research suggests that mesquite meal, with a low glycemic index of 25, helps regulate blood sugar.

Mesquite flour is used to make a refreshing drink. If allowed to ferment, a mixture of water and mesquite flour produces a fizzy alcoholic drink.

Mesquite flowers are collected and boiled to make tea. The flowers are also roasted and pressed into balls as another food source.

The pharmacy

The black tar or sap of mesquite trees can be boiled and diluted with water to make eye wash and an antiseptic for open wounds. It was also used on sore lips, chapped skin, as a sunburn lotion, and as a treatment for venereal disease.

A liquid made from boiling the inner bark of the tree was used as a laxative and as an emetic.

Tea made from mesquite leaves was used for headaches and stomach trouble. This tea also was used to cure conjunctivitis and to heal painful gums.

Other uses

The Pima Indians used the black tar as a hair dye. This involved boiling the tar and applying the mixture to the hair, covering the hair with mud over night, then thoroughly washing the next morning. Resin from the tree was used as glue to mend pottery, or when boiled and diluted, as paint for pottery. The inner bark of the tree was used for basketry.

General information

There are several species of mesquite trees. Within the desert southwest, the Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), the Honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), and the Screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens) are most common. These deciduous plants form shrubs and trees up to 30 feet tall. The branches contain spines. Most of the roots of mesquite trees are within the upper three feet of soil where most of the oxygen and water are. However, mesquite roots can go very deep. The deepest live root, found in a copper mine, extended 160 feet below the surface.

If you collect fallen bean pods, you may notice small holes in the pods. These holes are made by bruchid beetles, which infested the fallen bean as larvae, when it was green and tender. The holes were made by the mature beetle getting out of the bean. Don’t worry, the beetles just add more protein. Another insect found commonly with mesquite trees is the Giant Mesquite Bug.

For a description of the common mesquite species see here.

For more natural history and photos, see here.

For recipes using mesquite, see here.

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6 comments

  1. Some mesquite beans are too bitter to eat.  The twisted screwbean is worst.  The edible pods are rose or purple streaked or mottled.

  2. We all need more focus on foods like this given the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the Tohono O’odham people.  Small changes in diet can reap incredible rewards in regaining health.  Thanks to the author and TucsonCitizen.com.  Bravo!

  3. Thanks for this.  I thought I would ask the author, and the community at large, if they knew of any place where I could find Screwbean Mesquite growing in the wild?  I understand it’s pretty rare.

    1. This species is relatively rare. It occurs on floodplains and river bottomlands. I don’t know of a specific place.

  4. I like the part about, Dont worry , the larvae are protein, meats back on the menu BOYS and boiling the leaves for headakes and making fizz beer =) thanks

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