looking at a gnarly, thorny, water-sucking mesquite tree makes your
mouth water, you know you’re hungry. Real hungry.
In 1841, after the 320 men of the Texas-Santa
Fe Expedition had gone through all their provisions, the beans
that grow on the tree that covers much of Texas started looking
like “manna from heaven.” Expedition chronicler George W. Kendall
wrote a few years later that, “When our provisions and coffee ran
out, the men ate them [the mesquite beans] in immense quantities,
and roasted or boiled them.”
Like most writers, J. Frank Dobie had ideas for more books than
he ever got around to writing. One book he wanted to write, or see
someone else write, was on mesquite.
Dobie doubtless would be pleased that someone finally gotten around
to such a book. “The Magnificent Mesquite,” a general overview
of this interesting, useful, yet problematic tree, came out in 2000
from the University of Texas Press. The author is Ken E. Rogers,
a Texas Forest Service wood technologist at Texas A&M University.
mesquite is a Texas icon, as much of a Texas symbol as bluebonnets
The thorny tree covers some 56 million acres in Texas. Even though
Texas has the largest mesquite acreage in North America, the tree
also is found in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, California and even
Hawaii. (A Catholic priest grew the big island’s first mesquite
from a seed he brought across the Pacific from Paris in 1828.)
What will surprise many is that the tree is not particular to South
and North America. It and its several varieties are found in India,
Africa, and Australia.
The mesquite has been useful to animals and humans for millennia.
It provided food and shelter to aboriginal cultures and it still
offers food and cover for wildlife as well as livestock.
beans and the flour they can produce are not a staple today, in
an indirect way, the tree still feeds humans. Its wood is a favorite
for barbecuing and its leaves and beans give us honey, syrup and
Beyond that, mesquite is the second hardest wood. Because of that,
it’s not easy to work with, but items made from it, ranging from
dominos to furniture to art, are beautiful and enduring.
The tree’s extensive propagation has led to erosion, depleted water
tables and the crowding out of other vegetation. But mesquite enriches
the soil in which it grows, and if managed properly, it can be more
beneficial than harmful.
Even so, most ranchers have little use for the plant, which is technically
a legume. Legendary rancher W.T. Waggoner, who famously fussed when
oil was discovered on his North Texas property that he’d rather
have water than oil, also weighed in on water-sucking mesquite.
“[Mesquite is] the devil with roots. It scabs my cows, spooks my
horses, and gives little shade,” he spat.
Dobie never produced a book on mesquite, he did write several articles
on the tree.
In one of those pieces, published by Arizona Highways in 1941, Dobie
demonstrated his reverence for the mesquite. While many viewed mesquites
as despoilers of good land, Dobie saw the tree “as graceful and
lovely as any tree in the world.”
He continued: “When, in the spring, trees and bushes put on their
delicately green, transparent leaves and the mild sun shines upon
them, they are more beautiful than any peach orchard. The green
seems to float through the young sunlight into the sky. The mesquite
itself is a poem. The writer-folklorist even said he wouldn’t mind
being buried beneath a mesquite.
“I could ask for no better monument…than a good mesquite tree,”
he wrote, “its roots down deep like those of people who belong to
the soil, its hardy branches, leaves and fruit holding memories
of the soil….”