Monday, January 08, 2007

Viva Mesquite

Those who have traveled the American Southwest--or just about any warm, arid region of the world, have surely seen endless vistas of Mesquite. American ranchers have long considered it an invasive weed species, but I think that it is one of the most valuable gifts in our pantheon of useful native plants.

Mesquite, or the broader genus Prosopis that is found throughout the world's warm arid regions, is incredibly useful and underestimated. It is incredibly drought hardy, thriving on rainfall alone in the Sonoran Desert (and elsewhere), a location that receives around 12" or rain per year. Mesquite tap-roots have been discovered over 200' underground in copper mine tunnels--this is one hardy plant that enjoys water when it gets it, but can survive long and intense droughts. It is a leguminous tree, and is very effective at fixing nitrogen in the surrounding soil. It provides excellent, high-protein browse for livestock, its pods making excellent poultry forage. Its flowers are great attractors of polinators, and mesquite honey is renown (as is its cousin, acacia honey) for its excellence. It grows rapidly, especially considering its environment. It is probably best known today as a source of wood-chips to flavor BBQ dishes, but its wood is an excellent and very energy dense form of firewood and charcoal. With its root system established, it makes an excellent copice species--part of the problem that Western ranchers face when trying to get rid of it. It is also prized as a hardwood for structural timbers, furniture, and tool making. In fact, it is such an efficient creator of wood from marginal lands that it is being considered as a prime species for ethanol production. It is also semi-deciduous, and its leaf drop is an effective desert mulch in wind-protected areas. It has numerous traditional medicinal uses, many of which are being validated by modern medicine. It is a long-lived, zero-care tree that is a fascinating potential component for dry-land arboriculture.

Sounds like a pretty valuable tree, right? I left out the most interesting part. Its seed-pods are a traditional human food. Mesquite drops exceptionally hard seeds encased in elongated seed-pods. These pods themselves are dried and ground up into "Mesquite Flour." However, this "flour" is nothing like its wheat-based namesake. Mesquite flour is moderate sweet, has about 100 calories per ounce, and is very high in protein, fiber, and minerals. Perhaps most importantly, its carbohydrate content has a very, very low glycemic index--about 25 (mesquite flour is 80% carbohydrate, 25% being fiber, 13% protein, 3% fat). The Tohono O'odham indians of Arizona used to subsist primarily on mesquite flour and are now decimated by diabetes as they have almost completely abandoned it in favor of wheat flour. From a primitivist-diet perspective, mesquite flour does not have the same objections as grain flours do--the glycemic index is very, very low, the actual seed is not eaten, and the plant evolved an evolutionary system where the seed is extremely hard, but the pod (from which the flour is made) is very palatable to animals. Finally, one acre of hands-off mesquite production produces in the area of 2500 pounds of mesquite flour annually--that works out to over 4 million calories, or 10,000 calories per day.

Go figure....

13 comments:

rich said...

Hi Jeff

Mesquite is a pretty interesting beast, ecologically. It's pest status is a result of euro-american management changes in its habitat, namely fire suppression and grazing. There are large tracts of what were once grassland in TX that have been invaded by mesquite, which prospers in an overgrazed landscape. Once it establishes, it's allelopathic roots inhibit further grassland establishment, and a mature specimen is immune to fire.

A similar ecological shift has occurred in the inland Pacific Northwest with Western Juniper. It's evapotranspiration ability is stunning, and it can suck creeks and streams dry. Historically, it was only found in rimrock and other marginal habitats, but is now ubiquitous and spreading fast. Unfortunately, it's not nearly as useful as mesquite from a human standpoint...best I can tell, it's main values are for fenceposts, firewood, grouse forage and the making of gin.

Lots of good mesquite info at
http://texnat.tamu.edu/symposia/sculptor/8.htm

Rich

rich said...

...and I meant to indicate 'pest status' in ironic quotes....

Anonymous said...

I like to fashion 8 to 10 pound chunks of mesquite wood into club-like instruments and put them into service beating euro-americans for having the nerve to float over here and categorize the noble Prosopis as a "pest".

The tragedy of Mesquite is yet another blaring example of the euro-trash degratory influence upon an infinitely more enlightened, and Mesquite-loving culture.

We must unite to put an end to the demonizing of Mesquite once and for all. I am in the early stages of planning a march on Washington DC to bring this dire and unfortunate situation to the forefront of media coverage, and hopefully, a permanent solution involving the total deportation of euro-americans and their influence.

Viva Mesquite!!

Rao said...

Hi Jeff,

What is your opinion about trying to plant and use this tree in India - in terms of bringing in a non-native species. (I assume it is not native to India).

Thanks.
Rao

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid the outcome of Mesquite in India is doomed to the same fate as the Hawaiian Pine Trees.

As everyone knows, Pine Trees require a minimum temperature variance of 20 - 30 degrees. Being that Hawaii does not have this variance, the inner workings of the Pine became essentially "slush" and were completely useless for wood, sap, or Christmas festivities.

In addition to the climactical difficulties Mesquite will face in India, there is the cross-culture obstacles akin to the "euro-american" demonization of the noble Mesquite brush Rich so aptly identifies. You are in a sense cultivating what would be a purely non-colonial, useful, and beloved brush plant into a land-hungry "Crusader weed" bent on empire and conquest in foreign lands it does not belong.

Viva Mesquite! in it's own homeland. Rao, I resent your interest in making Mesquite the source of animocity in foreign lands and manufacturing further resentment abroad.

Jeff Vail said...

Rao-

I actually found in my research several sources that cited historical use of native prosopis species in India (in the North West) and Pakistan. I certainly am not qualified to either discuss the relative merits of the native Indian Prosopis with the Arizona Mesquite, or the risks of bringing in a non-native but related species, but it seems that there is potential with native species--at least if you are in the North. There seem to be (at least) two highly useful species native to India, the Prosopis Cineraria and the Prosopis Juliflora Here's a few links:

http://library.wustl.edu/~listmgr/devel-l/Jan1996/0069.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prosopis_cineraria

http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/duke_energy/Prosopis_juliflora.html

http://www.worldagroforestrycentre.org/es/Prosopis_juliflora.asp

Jeff Vail said...

Sorry, those links seem to be truncated. Try these:

Link 1

Link 2

Link 3

Link 4

Rao said...

Thanks for the feedback guys.
Rao

Hasse Schougaard said...

Seems Mesquite was introduced into Australia a long time ago. Defnitely considered a pest here. The link below has a nice picture of the dense Mesquite forests thats here...

http://www.ento.csiro.au/weeds/mesquite/
I was hoping to find a native version, but it looks like there isn't one.

kyle said...

I know a lot of people who cook with mesquite. It adds a great flavor to all kinds of dishes. There is a local bee farmer who produces a great mesquite honey. It's a pretty tough plant too, which might have contributed to the invasive species rep it has.

Anonymous said...

No, Kyle. The "pest" status that has been assigned to Mesquite is not due to its staying power, aggressive expansion, its tendency to choke out other useful but non-Mesquite plantlife, or its large, uninviting thorns, but because of the ignorance and bigotry of Europeans who were not enlightened enough to see through such characteristics and embrace Mesquite.

This is typical of European culture. Europeans are ironically much like Mesquite what with their conquering others who are not like them and intruding where they don't belong at the expense of the indiginous species.

However, while it is proper and fitting to demonize Europeans and their ignorant categorization of Mesquite as a "pest", we should switch footing and use the same characteristics with which we condemn the Euro-trash culture and instead praise Mesquite. That is only fair.

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