MesquiteMesquite blossoms (mess-KEET)

Though it would hardly be called a tree in most parts of the US, the mesquite has won that title in the arid southwest by dint of sheer perserverance. Where no other tree can thrive there you'll find mesquite. The seeds of these lacy-leaved, spiny survivors provide essential food for many birds and mammals. The seeds, which ripen in summer or fall, are borne in tough pods. Among the top consumers of mesquite seeds are Gambel's quail, scaled quail and dove. Jack rabbits, cottontail rabbits, skunks, kangaroo rats and pocket mice eat seeds, leaves and sometimes bark. Foliage and twigs are eaten by mule deer and white-tailed deer. These trees provide nesting space for birds and welcome shade as well. Since mesquites are a legume, they benefit the soil by restoring nitrogen to it. Their roots often penetrate the ground to a depth of sixty feet. Mesquite trees are frequently attacked by Desert Mistletoe which appears as large clumps in the trees that can weaken and eventually kill them.

Species include common or velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) and screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens), which has a tightly coiled spiral seed pod instead of the narrow reddish-brown one of the common mesquite.

Mesquite pods

Seed pods of the common mesquite, photographed at Hereford, AZ

John Russell Bartlett of the U.S. Boundary Commission of 1850 was one of the first Americans to describe this tree as it grows inthe desert west; he wrote:

The mesquit is an important tree in this region, and is mentioned by various travellers as mezkeet, musquit, muckeet, etc.; it belongs to the same natural family as our locust [all are members of the pea family, Leguminosae], which it very much resembles in appearance. The foliage is more delicate than that of the locust. The wood is hard, fine-grained, and susceptible of a high polish; and were it not difficult to obtain it sufficiently large and straight, it would be much sought after for cabinet-making purposes. The tree seems to suffer from the attacks of insects in a similar manner with the locust. The mesquit bears a long and narrow pod, which, when ripe, is filled with a highly saccharine pulp. Horses and mules are exceedingly fond of these, and will often leave their corn for a feed of the mesquit beans. Its great value is for fuel, for which purpose it is not surpassed by any of our northern woods. Where the prairies are frequently burned over, the tree is reduced to a shrubby state, a great number of small branches proceeding from one root, which goes on developing and attains a great size, though the portion above ground may not be more than four or five feet high. These roots, dug up and dried, are highly prized for firewood, and form, when thoroughly ignited, a bed of lasting coals, much like those from the hickory of the north.

Bartlett, John Russell. Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora and Chihuahua, 1850-53. (1854) Volume I, Chapter IV.

See also: An 1885 trip to the Chiricahua mountains