By: Shelley Pierce
If someone were to mention “mesquite” to me, my thoughts immediately turn to the mesquite wood used for grilling and barbecuing. Given that I am a foodie, I always think of things in terms of my taste buds or stomach. So, I have often wondered, “Is there more to mesquite beyond the grill? Can you eat mesquite? Are mesquite trees edible?” Read on to discover my findings regarding eating mesquite.
Mesquite Pod Uses
Are mesquite trees edible? Why, yes, they are, if you’re willing to put in a little elbow grease.
Mesquite trees produce sweet seed pods which can be milled into flour. The seed pods should be harvested, when they are ripe, between the months of June and September (in the U.S.). It is recommended to harvest pods when they are dry and brittle, and to collect them directly from the tree branches in lieu of the ground to avoid contamination with fungi and bacteria.
Seed pods are somewhat flat and bean-like and can reach 6-10 inches (15-25 cm.) long. There are over 40 species of mesquite tree in existence. The color of a ripe pod varies by tree variety and can range from yellow-beige to reddish-purple. Taste also varies by mesquite tree variety, so you may want to do some seed pod sampling to see what appeals to your taste buds the best.
Before harvesting from a specific tree, be sure to chew on a pod to test its sweetness – avoid harvesting from trees with bitter tasting pods; otherwise, you’ll end up with bitter flour, which will yield less than desirable results in your culinary concoctions. Once harvested, you will want to ensure your pods are perfectly dry by drying them further on a drying rack or solar/conventional oven before grinding them up into mesquite flour.
Mesquite flour is very nutritious and is said to impart a sweet nutty flavor. It can be substituted in part for flour in a wide variety of baked goods including breads, waffles, pancakes, muffins, cookies, cakes and much more. Feel free to add a tablespoon or two of mesquite flour to your smoothies, coffee, or tea to inject a flavor boost. So does this have you interested in eating mesquite? It sure is making me hungry!
You can also create a mesquite syrup that can be used to sweeten anything from pancakes to ice cream or used as a glaze on chicken/pork and much more! Simply add pods and water to a crock pot, set it on low for 12 hours, strain, then reduce by boiling until a thin syrup is created. This mesquite syrup can also be made into a jam by adding some pectin, sugar and lemon/lime juice. Some have even brewed tasty beer using mesquite syrup as an ingredient.
So, to summarize – can you eat mesquite? – Yes! The culinary possibilities for mesquite are practically endless! This really just scratches the surface of mesquite pod uses!
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Cooking With Mesquite Beans
Mesquite, the most common shrub or small tree in the Desert Southwest, forms fruit of bean-like pods in the fall that have long been a nutritious food source to humans, wildlife and livestock.
For Native Americans of the desert regions, mesquite was not only relied on as a dietary staple, but as the most important economic plant of their culture. The Papago, Pima, Yuman, Cocopa, Mohave and Cahuilla peoples of Arizona and California utilized all parts of the mesquite:
- Bark - basketry, pottery, fabrics and medicine
- Trunk & Branches - firewood, in the manufacture of bows, arrows, mortars and furniture
- Thorns - awls and for tattooing
- Leaves - making tea, used medicinally as an eyewash and for head and stomach aches
- Sap - as a snack, glue and dye.
But it was the mesquite pod, with its nutritious, bittersweet pulp, that provided the greatest benefit to indigenous desert peoples. They collected pods each fall, often eating many of them green from the trees. The rest they dried in the sun and stored in large baskets for future use.
Usually, the beans (pods and seeds) were ground into a coarse meal, then by adding water, were transformed into a gruel or a cake without cooking. Some cultures are said to have taken the seeds from the pods and ground them into a flour called pinole, from which a bread was actually baked.
The pods of all 3 common species of mesquite -- Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina) -- are edible, although the Screwbean is less flavorful than the more widespread Honey Mesquite.
Add the authentic Southwest taste of mesquite to your meals by trying the following recipes, or simply sprinkle mesquite meal on meats and vegetables before grilling.
Collect mesquite pods in September and October, discard the light or hollow ones and retain the full or heavier ones. Dry in the sun, or in the oven on low heat, until pods are crumbly, then grind in blender or food processor. This can be difficult because the seeds are much harder than the pods. While it easier to grind the pods alone, nutritional value is lost and the flavor is somewhat different.
(Native Americans used a metate, a flat stone with a concave surface on which nuts, grains or other food items can be ground using another stone.)
If you cannot, or do not want to dry and process mesquite meal yourself, commercial products like as those sold at the DesertUSA Store, are also available.
- 4 quarts water
- 1 lb Mesquite pods (washed)
Place water and pods in a covered crock pot and cook at low heat for 12 hours. Strain, then reduce by boiling to the consistency of thin syrup. Cool and serve the thick, bold syrup on hotcakes or Texas Toast.
Mesquite Flour Tortillas
- 1-1/2 cup white flour
- 1/2 cup mesquite flour
- 3 Tbs oil
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/2 cup warm water
Mix together dry ingredients. Use a wooden spoon to stir in oil, then water, making a ball. Knead for 2 minutes, then cover and let sit 20 minutes. Divide into 12 balls, then flatten into 1/8" disks and cook in a dry skillet at medium temperature. When slightly brown (appx. 2 minutes), turn and cook the other side 1 minute. If you plan to use the cooked tortillas at a later time you can store them in a plastic bag.
- 3/4 cup cornmeal
- 3/4 cup white flour
- 1/2 cup mesquite meal
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 cup yogurt
- 1 egg
- 3 Tbs honey (or mesquite syrup)
- 3 Tbs oil
Preheat oven to 340° F. Combine dry ingredients in a medium size bowl. Beat egg in small bowl and stir in wet ingredients. Mix wet ingredients with the dry ingredients and stir 1 minute. Pour into greased 8x8" pan and bake 20-25 minutes.
Can You Eat Mesquite - Information On Eating Mesquite Tree Parts - garden
Native Americans relied on the mesquite pod as a dietary staple from
which they made tea, syrup and a ground meal called pinole. They also
used the bark for basketry, fabrics and medicine. A favorite of bees and
other insects, mesquite flowers produce a fragrant honey.
The taproots, which can be larger than the trunk, are often dug up for
firewood. Next to Ironwood, mesquite is the best firewood of the desert,
because it burns slowly and is smokeless. The wood is also used for
fence posts, tool handles and to create aromatic charcoal for barbecuing.
Cattlemen regard mesquite as range weeds and eradicate them, but
much of the invasion of mesquite into former grasslands, where it did not
grow a century ago, is due to overgrazing.
Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts from western Texas, west to
extreme southwestern Utah, southeastern California and adjoining
Alongside desert washes and streams, plains and hillsides, often in
thickets below 5,500 feet.
Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa)
Honey Mesquite is a shrub or small tree characterized by 8-inch,
bean-like pods and 3-inc spines occurring at large nodes on branches. It
reaches a height of 20 feet the trunk may be up to 12 inches in diameter.
Honey Mesquite has smooth, brown bark that roughens with age.
Narrow, bipinnately compound leaves 2 to 3 inches long are sharply
pointed. They are yellowish green in color with oblong leaflets 1/8" wide
and 1 1/4" long.
Honey Mesquite blooms in May displaying 1/4-inch long fragrant, creamy
yellow flowers in narrow 3-inch clusters. The fruit is a flat, narrow,
yellow-green pod up to 8 inches long and ending in a point.
Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens)
The Screwbean Mesquite is a shrub or small tree characterized by
2-inch, screw-like pods and spiny, twisted branches. It reaches a height
of 20 feet the trunk may be up to 8 inches in diameter.
The Screwbean Mesquite has light-brown to reddish, smooth bark that
separates into long, shaggy strips. Narrow, bipinnately compound leaves
2 to 3 inches long are sharply pointed. They are dull green in color and
slightly hairy containing 5 to 8 pairs of oblong leaflets 1/8" wide and 3/8"
The Screwbean Mesquite blooms May through August displaying many
crowded, 2-inch clusters of 3/8-inch light yellow flowers. The fruit is a
hard, 2-inch, spiraled, brown-to-yellow pod with sweet pulp.
Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina)
Velvet Mesquite is a larger shrub or medium-size tree characterized by
straight, 2-inch spines on the branches. Often growing in dense thickets,
it is larger than the other species, reaching a height of 30 feet the trunk
may be up to 24 inches in diameter.
Velvet Mesquite has dark-brown, smooth bark that separates into long,
shaggy strips. Narrow, bipinnately compound leaves 2 to 3 inches long
are sharply pointed. They are dull green in color with gray hairs.
Velvet Mesquite blooms in April, and sometimes again in August,
displaying small, fragrant, greenish yellow flowers in slender, cylindrical
spikes up to 4 inches long. The fruit is a slender, brown pod up to 8
Medical studies of mesquite and other desert foods, said that despite its
sweetness, mesquite flour (made by grinding whole pods) "is extremely
effective in controlling blood sugar levels" in people with diabetes. The
sweetness comes from fructose, which the body can process without
insulin. In addition, soluble fibers, such as galactomannin gum, in the
seeds and pods slow absorption of nutrients, resulting in a flattened
blood sugar curve, unlike the peaks that follow consumption of wheat
flour, corn meal and other common staples.
|Like the Coyote, the Black-tail Jackrabbit, the |
Western Diamondback, scorpions, the Saguaro and
prickly pear cacti, the mesquites symbolize our
Southwestern deserts. Like the Indian peoples and
the Hispanic and Anglo settlers, the mesquites define
the very notions of individuality, adaptability,
opportunism, toughness and stubbornness. Occurring
as respectable trees or as small shrubs, they cover a
monumental range, spanning tens of millions of acres
from the southern Rolling Plains and the Texas Gulf
Coast westward across the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and
Mojave Deserts. They prosper in a diversity of
habitats, from humid and sandy coastal plains to the
grassy prairies to perennial and intermittent stream
beds to desert basin shrub lands and dunes to flattop
mesas to mile-high rocky mountain slopes.
|The mesquites, including the |
three species in our
Southwestern deserts, belong
to the legume family, which
ranks near the top of plants
especially adapted to an arid
environment. Typically, the
legumes, which have woody
stems and branches, produce
bipinnately compound leaves
(leaves with two or more
secondary veins, each with
two rows of leaflets). They
bear flowers that have five
petals. They produce
abundant large seedpods that
serve as a nutritious food
source for wildlife. They grow
deep-reaching root systems
that host colonies of bacteria
that can fix nitrogen, one of
the minerals most important to
plant germination and growth.
|Our three species of mesquites, which include |
the Honey Mesquite, the Velvet Mesquite and
the Screwbean Mesquite, share various
characteristics. They range from a few feet to
10 to 15 feet in height, although the Honey and
Velvet Mesquites may reach 30 to 60 feet in
especially favorable settings. They may have
single or multiple-branched stems, with each
plant assuming its own distinctive shape. They
come armed with thorns on the smaller
branches. They shed their leaves in the winter.
They bloom from spring into summer, bearing
small frothy-looking clusters – called “catkins” –
of tiny, five-petal, pale green or yellowish
flowers, which lure numerous pollinating
insects. They produce pods that contain hard
and long-lasting seeds that must be scarified
before they will germinate. Mesquites have
lateral roots that extend far beyond the canopies
of the plants and taproots that penetrate well
below the surface of the soil. Some mesquites
may live for more than two centuries, according
to Thomas B. Wilson, Robert H. Webb and
Thomas L. Thompson, U. S. Department of
Agriculture, Forest Service, General Technical
|The Honey Mesquite, distinguished by |
smooth-surfaced leaflets, makes its primary
home in the Chihuahuan Desert, east of the
Continental Divide, although its outer range
extends across the Sonoran Desert as well.
The closely related Velvet Mesquite, marked
by velvet-surfaced leaflets, has as its primary
residence the Sonoran Desert, west of the
Continental Divide. The Screwbean
Mesquite, identified by its tightly spiraled
bean pods, has established as its basic
range the northern Sonoran Desert up into
the Mojave Desert. Where distributions of
the species overlap, the plants hybridize,
often making identification difficult, according
to Wilson and his co-authors .
Over time, the mesquites expanded their
range to correspond largely with the
herbivores’ range, which extended from flood
plains and washes up into prairies, mesas and
mountain slopes. When the Ice Ages ended,
however, the large herbivores died out,
becoming extinct, and rainfall diminished.
Deprived of their animal agents for distribution
and faced with intensifying competition for
water and nutrients, mesquites retreated to
the flood plains and washes, forfeiting the
higher elevation landscapes to the grasses.
Further, the mesquites remained contained by
frequent wildfires fueled by the grasses, which
recovered within a season.
When European descendants moved into the
desert Southwest, mesquites found a new ally,
domesticated livestock, especially the cattle.
The new herbivores not only ate and
dispersed the pods, the great livestock herds
stripped away the desert grasses, eliminating
competition and wildfire fuel. In many areas,
the opportunistic mesquites moved in to
displace grasses. They reclaimed much of
their Ice Age range, expanding from the flood
plains and washes again up into prairies,
mesas and mountain slopes. Mesquites grew
up along the historic cattle trails, defining the
routes to this day. In fact, mesquites have
become established in borrow ditches along
modern desert roadways traveled by cattle
Mesquites as Botanical Enemies
The mesquites’ encroachment into pasture
lands and displacement of grasses have
frustrated cattlemen, who unwittingly fostered
the advance in the first place by overgrazing.
“Because dense mesquite out competes grass
for water and light and because mesquite
groves don’t support fire, this conversion if
permanent (on a human time scale) without
physical intervention,” according to the
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Internet site.
The mesquites have largely thwarted any
attempt at control, including, for instance,
planned burns, herbicides or physical
removal—all methods that mean high cost and
potential environmental damage.
For instance, “Fire has been used as a
management tool to control mesquite
distribution for decades” said Wilson and his
associates. However, one authority
“determined that within 5 years of a fire in
southern Arizona [mesquite] biomass [the total
dry weight of the mesquite population] had
attained preburn levels.” The mesquites may
succumb to frequently repeated burns but so
do the native grasses, making way for
imported invasive species such as the
extremely aggressive Lehmann lovegrass.
Herbicides, usually applied by aircraft, have
also been used for decades in attempts to
control the mesquites. However, “To
completely remove mesquite or at least limit its
spread in open rangeland using herbicides
only, multiple treatments are required
otherwise, the long-term viability of mesquite
seeds and their abundance with the seed
bank would ensure continual recruitment,”
said Wilson and associates. Moreover,
“These multiple applications could create
adverse side effects to rangeland species
diversity and biomass… With the attendant
costs of herbicides and aerial application over
large areas, a viable long-term management
strategy using only herbicides may be
Physical removal – by methods such as
dozing, root plowing, chaining, roller chopping
or shredding – has reduced mesquite density
in pasture lands for brief periods, but the
plants soon re-sprout from their bases, more
dense than ever. Moreover, said Wilson and
his fellow authors, “driving large mechanical
equipment through rangeland can cause soil
compaction, crush animals, destroy animal
burrows, and uproot desirable plant species
such as perennial grasses.”
Cabeza de Vaca, in his Adventures
in the Unknown Interior of America
(translated and edited by Cyclone
Covey), said that “The Indian
method of preparing [mesquite
beans] is to dig a fairly deep hole in
the ground, throw in the beans, and
pound them with a club the
thickness of a leg and a fathom and
a half long, until they are well
mashed. Besides the earth that
gets mixed in from the bottom and
sides of the hole, the Indians add
some handfuls, then pound awhile
longer. They throw the meal into a
basket-like jar and pour water on it
until it is covered
“Then all squat round, and each
takes out as much as he can with
one hand. To the partakers, the
dish is a great banquet”
During the inevitable droughts and
deprivations of desert frontier days,
the mesquite trees served up the
primary food source for caravans
and settlers. Mesquite beans
became “manna from heaven” for
the suffering men of the 1841 Texas
Santa Fe Expedition said George
W. Kendall (quoted by Ken E.
Rogers in The Magnificent
Mesquite) in his journal. “When our
provisions and coffee ran out, the
men ate [mesquite beans] in
immense quantities, and roasted or
boiled them!” During the Civil War,
when groceries often ran short,
mesquite beans served as passable
coffee. Mesquite blooms, pollinated
by bees, yield a connoisseur’s
Mesquite beans, durable enough for
years of storage, became the
livestock feed of choice when
pasture land grasses failed due to
drought or overgrazing. They were
carried by early freighters, who fed
the beans to their draft animals,
especially in Mexico.
Although often crooked in shape,
mesquite tree branches, stable and
durable, filled needs for wood during
the construction of Spanish
missions, and colonial haciendas,
ranch houses and fencing. Its wood
serves artisans in the crafting of
furniture, flooring, paneling and
sculptures. “Of the tree mesquite,”
said Dobie, “there is one kind of
yellowish wood and another of a
deep reddish hue as beautiful when
polished as the richest mahogany.”
In some areas, mesquites provide a
bountiful harvest of wood for use in
fireplaces and barbecue grills.
Mesquites, requiring little water and
only low maintenance, have found a
place in Southwest xeriscaped
gardens and parks. They not only
produce beans and blooms that
attract wildlife, they provide perches
and nesting sites for birds, including
Mesquite, crucial to Indigenous diets for centuries, works miracles with water and needs no fertilizer. Why don’t we grow more of it?Chris Malloy
In a Southwest that’s getting hotter and drier while its population steadily grows, ecologists and Indigenous food activists are increasingly touting mesquite’s potential as a widespread, sustainable drylands crop and food source.
Thirty yards from an auto shop in Tempe, Arizona, in desert air thick with humidity and the rumble of trucks on a nearby highway, Kelly Athena plucked a pod from one of numerous mesquite trees in the area and put it in her mouth. She chewed, stopped, let her saliva coat the pod. Then she loudly spit it out. “This tastes like a sweet, tart candy,” the self-described foraging educator said—the flavor can vary widely. She stepped away from the paved path of a park, laid a tarp under the tree, and started harvesting.
Pictured above, Jackson Richards (left) and Kelly Athena foraging mesquite in an urban Tempe, Arizona park.
Athena, who wore one blue glove and a gardener’s hat, moved in and gripped the young tree with both hands. She shook hard. Pods fell.
Athena and her husband, Jackson Richards, folded the tarp and moved to a 25-foot velvet mesquite. She chewed a pod. “It takes sucking on it for a minute or two to get the flavor,” she said. “Some can be nutty. Some can be so sweet, oh my god, they taste like brown sugar.” Chewing, she studied the tree’s hundreds of long, dangling pods: curly, dry, and ghostly yellow mottled with pink. The slender lengths festooning the dark, lithe boughs are the tree’s main food source. Most commonly, pods are ground to flour, either whole pods or select parts.
Mesquite season would end on that early summer day, as it did for the Sonoran Desert’s ancient tribes, if the foreboding gusts rose into the first summer monsoon. Pods torn to the ground by wind and soaked by rain develop harmful aflatoxins, so monsoon season effectively ends mesquite foraging each year. Athena, a forager who also sells mesquite beans and flour, laid her tarp and started to take on the thin-boughed, feathery-leafed tree before the rains hit.
A young couple strolled down the park path. They noticed the mesquite tarps with confusion.
A mesquite tree leans by a road on the way to Scottsdale, Arizona’s McDowell Mountains.
Many people who live on the millions of American acres where mesquite grows—from Southern California to western Kansas—see it as just another tree. Residents of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert in particular may not realize that mesquite was once their region’s most important food. Its seeds are about 35 percent protein. Its roots can tunnel 160 feet, deeper than any other tree, making for copious yields despite minimal water.
This is the apex desert food that today’s suburbanites sweep from yards into trash bags, that pops unnoticed under car tires and browns like rock, while millions of people instead buy wheat flour trucked in from the Midwest, and sugar from distant beet, corn, and sugarcane fields.
Over the course of history, mesquite pods have been used to make flour, no-bake bread, the thick Mexican beverage atole, candy, syrup, even beer. Yet despite its versatility, nutritional potential, and adaptation to harsh desert conditions, mesquite hasn’t been as widely seen as a potential food source in recent centuries. Early ranchers in the West even tried to eradicate mesquite trees by fire, chemical, and clearing.
Over the course of history, mesquite pods have been used to make flour, no-bake bread, the thick Mexican beverage atole, candy, syrup, even beer.
But in recent decades, Southwestern ecologists have become increasingly fascinated by mesquite’s potential as a widespread, sustainable drylands crop and food source. Some of them have released ambitious, forward-looking plans to make mesquite an ecologically sound pillar of regional food systems. Though conundrums loom—creating supply chains, changing consumer habits, and re-imagining farms—they believe mesquite has the potential to be a crop of the future.
In a Southwest that is getting hotter and drier while its population steadily grows, one of the keys to smarter food systems may have been hiding in open-desert sight from the beginning.
Creating biological miracles with water
Before the 19th century, before trading posts, mining jobs, and the employment opportunities of the New Deal and World War Two before colonization and forced assimilation through mandatory re-education, Indigenous people of southern Arizona lived on mostly wild foods. This included scores of plants, none more vital than mesquite. Come spring, the Seri from the Gulf of California (present-day Sonora, Mexico) and the Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona picked pods and stored them in giant baskets on the roofs of houses. Sealed with mud, some held enough mesquite to feed a family of six for a year. Mesquite was once a vital staple to many diets.
“Our people have been using mesquite for a long time,” said Clifford Pablo, who manages the garden at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona. “For shade, for housing, for fencing, the leaves for different medicines. And the pods, everybody has been using that for a long time, eating it and staying healthy.”
The same is true in eastern Arizona, where Twila Cassadore, an Apache foods activist, gathers pods for flour and tea. “Mesquite is a very good seasonal staple,” she said. “It endures in our environment.” She touts the low-water requirements and dietary benefits of mesquite. “You’ll see young people when they’re playing out there in the desert, and they’re just chewing them.”
“Our people have been using mesquite for a long time. For shade, for housing, for fencing, the leaves for different medicines. And the pods, everybody has been using that for a long time, eating it and staying healthy.”
Today in central and southern Arizona, conventional agriculture often drains vital local resources, its practices disrupting the area’s natural ecosystem. Water is pumped in from remote rivers or depleting underground sources to supply monocultures of water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa. Tracts of open desert gleam viridescent with leafy row crops, making the landscape look like Iowa or Italy. Rather than treating desert like desert, farmers artificially transform it with water and energy that could be directed elsewhere or conserved.
“We are living in extraordinary times in the ease with which we deploy fossil fuel energy and transform Arizona into some other place to grow foods,” said Tim Crews, director of research and lead scientist of the ecology program at The Land Institute. “We literally use fossil fuels to turn Arizona into Northern California.”
In pursuit of balance, experts say, arid-adapted plants like mesquite can help. “The amount of edible biomass year after year that you gain for the amount of water over a decade’s time, I don’t know any desert crop that beats mesquite in terms of productivity,” said ecologist Gary Nabhan, who harvests pods on his Borderlands ranch and wrote the book Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair. Nabhan, who has been imagining new systems for growing mesquite, keeps a hammermill for grinding pods into flour in his garage.
Mesquite pods fallen in the shadow of a tree during the Sonoran Desert’s monsoon season.
Mesquite—low-water, drought-tolerant, a nitrogen fixer, source of carbon sequestration, and potential shortener of supply chains—may provide one solution to making food systems more sustainable in the places the tree grows. The solution looks to the past, embracing drylands rather than driving their transformation.
Crucially, the tree works miracles with water. Mesquite can bear pods unirrigated in Yuma, Arizona, on three inches of rain a year. Its roots can reach deep into Arizona’s lowering water tables, meaning it doesn’t need irrigation drawn from aquifers, lakes, and rivers. It can prosper on urban streets with little more than stormwater runoff. It can tolerate saline water, important because year-after-year irrigation makes cropland saltier, threatening harvests (a phenomenon that has doomed entire civilizations). During drought, mesquite can tap into water other plants cannot reach. “Mesquite certainly makes more sense for that Southwest than growing alfalfa,” said Richard Felger, researcher with the University of Arizona Herbarium and longtime Sonoran ethnobotanist. “The water requirements are reduced by orders of magnitude.”
Mesquite’s roots provide another forward-looking benefit. As a legume, mesquite fixes nitrogen, improving soil fertility and virtually erasing the need for fertilizers.
“Mesquite has a very high energy return on investment,” said Crews. “You don’t need to fertilize it. You don’t need to add water. It pretty much grows itself.”
“The problem is we don’t have a market.”
Theoretically, it makes sense to produce more mesquite in the Southwest—not to mention in the world’s other drylands. Mesquite grows in Africa, Asia, Australia, and in both Americas. In the United States, however, there are obstacles.
First, there is culinary familiarity. American consumers don’t know mesquite—its flavors and forms, its uses, or that bakers tend to blend it with other flour because of its subtle cinnamon spicing and lack of gluten.
Second, due to undeveloped and unscaled supply chains, mesquite flour costs between $12 and $24 per pound. These prices are astronomical relative to fully scaled, subsidized commodity wheat flours, which can drop to $2 a pound at big retailers. A better yardstick might be a fellow gluten-free flour, like cassava flour, generally $5 to $13 a pound.
Then there is the challenge of developing these supply chains, with an eye to building scale and efficiencies, which eventually lowers prices. Building out supply chains, however, requires a market. And a competitive market requires someone to come in with a lowest price. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.
Newly harvested screwbean mesquite pods piled on a tarp.
Peter Felker, a scientist and former researcher in semi-arid forest resources with Texas A&M University, is a current partner in Casa de Mesquite, a mesquite flour producer and one the Southwest’s main purveyors. Felker has pondered this and similar problems for decades. He also catches flak for the location of his mesquite trees: Argentina.
“I’d like to see mesquite make it as a food crop,” he said. “To do that, I have to find the right place. Argentina is where the labor is cheap and the pods are sweet.” (Felker claims that mesquite grown in South America is superior in taste.)
With supply chains, farms, and sophisticated means of harvesting still undeveloped, Felker said producing mesquite in the Southwest just isn’t viable. In Argentina, Felker buys pods from landowners with native mesquite forests that are being steadily cut, sold, and shaped into furniture. He claims the only way to make harvesting pods viable anywhere—his lifelong dream—is mechanization, which his company has been developing. He envisions rows of mesquite trees spaced at 18-foot intervals, with 25 feet between rows, enough room for a tractor to rumble through and keep grass clipped, then sweep up fallen mesquite before the rainy season. “The problem is we don’t have a market,” he said. “If we get a market, mechanization will follow.”
“Mesquite, in terms of harvesting, as with other tree crops, it’s a little tricky and has a fairly high labor cost.”
Felker thinks the solution to the market-and-supply-chain problem is marketing and education about the crop’s manifold benefits: building a textured hunger for mesquite.
On the wild foods side, Athena-style foraging doesn’t have the scaling potential that mesquite farming would. Foraged mesquite, like foraged mushrooms, is likely to remain pricier than any future intelligently farmed counterparts. With foraged foods, too, there are the added issues of food safety education, practicality for widespread use, and the inability to choose which types of mesquite to cultivate.
“Mesquite, in terms of harvesting, as with other tree crops, it’s a little tricky and has a fairly high labor cost,” said Tim Crews from The Land Institute. “You could lay out tarps under trees … and shake them some, but [the pods] don’t all ripen at the same time.”
At the 25-foot mesquite tree, Athena stretched up with a limber, cup-ended pole used by golfers to retrieve stuck balls. She nudged branches. Pods dropped. She and Richards moved down the park path. Now and then, planes from the nearby Phoenix airport would rip through the pollution-hazy desert sky.
Athena stopped at a leviathan velvet mesquite and laid her tarp. “I try to be gentle, like the wind,” she said.
In the Southwest, summer temperatures limit daytime foraging. Dozens of pods dropped through the soupy heat, already 95 degrees before noon. Athena hoped to gather quickly to maximize her narrow window.
Athena and other foragers tend to sell mesquite in flour form. She grinds flour at home in a mill, selling it locally at a farmers’ market and globally through the internet. She also sells to chefs.
Athena uses mesquite flour to make pancakes and waffles, but uses whole pods or parts to make tea, juice, and syrup.
One local chef uses mesquite flour in pie crust and to thicken stocks. A downtown brewery adds mesquite to saison. In Metro Phoenix, you can taste mesquite in dinner rolls, cookies, and Mexican-style lattes. Enterprising home cooks have also adopted a vast array of uses. Eat Mesquite and More, a 2018 Sonoran wild foods cookbook by a Tucson-based group of foragers, contains mesquite-centric recipes for pancakes, waffles, scones, granola, focaccia, biscotti, tamales, tapenade, ice cream, chai, dry rub, and beer. At least 64 of its recipes call for mesquite.
Athena arrived at the day’s last tree, an 18-foot screwbean with spiraled pods that yield a coarse flour. Athena uses mesquite flour to make pancakes and waffles, but uses whole pods or parts to make tea, juice, and syrup. Ducking twisted branches, she laid her tarp over ground that hadn’t seen measurable rainfall in at least 100 days. With cicadas trilling in the July heat like buzz saws, Athena took one side of her tree. Her husband took the other.
Soon, they finished their tree, their day, and their mesquite foraging season. Five pounds in about an hour. At a 65 percent yield, the haul would make just over three pounds of flour. Athena chuckled about people in her HOA, who complained about mesquite pods filling yards and clogging pool drains. “It’s not litter,” she said. “It’s lunch.”
A mesquite-based economy
Some Southwestern ecologists want to normalize mesquite consumption for the general public. Felger noted the growing interest for mesquite foraging in Tucson, envisioning paid city employees combing mesquite trees the way sanitation workers make weekly garbage pickups. When Crews worked at Prescott College in Arizona, he taught a natural systems agriculture course that explored the idea of farms using desert-adapted plants like mesquite. Recently, more concrete visions have taken shape.
With more than two dozen drylands thinkers and innovators joining as contributing authors or signatories, Nabhan and Tohono O’odham Community College adjunct professor Martha Ames Burgess edited a “Mesquite Manifesto.” Published in 2019, it proposes a “mesquite-based restoration economy” straddling the U.S.-Mexico border.
The communiqué asks border states to reconsider mesquite and collaborate to develop a mesquite-centered plan for a “just and environmentally rich” local economy. It posits that mesquite could become “the most cost-effective natural and cultural resource investment ever made in the future of arid America.” Among other initiatives, the manifesto calls for education about mesquite so locals have the knowledge to harvest from extant trees, and for land-grant universities to see mesquite anew, which might spur “agricultural engineers to develop more scale-appropriate milling equipment, cold storage protocols for mesquite flour, and rapid food-safety monitoring techniques.”
With the right education and technology, however developed, what might a mesquite farm look like? “They’re going to look like apple orchards or pecan orchards or anything else,” Felger said. “Only they’re not going to require nitrogen.”
“It’s really time to think about de-addicting ourselves from growing conventional crops like they’re made for this environment.”
Today, some thinkers have looked past mainstream agriculture to progressive polyculture, perennial, and agroforestry solutions that include mesquite. These would key more fully into the tree’s environmental potential.
A July 2020 paper dedicated to Felger, co-authored by Crews, and lead-authored by Nabhan, proposed new systems of low-input drylands agriculture built around native crops like mesquite. One model system would see desert legumes like mesquite rising above ground rows of cacti, perennials, and annuals, forming a polyculture. Mesquite crowns would provide relief from sun, heat, and “evaporative water loss.” Their deep roots would pull up water and nutrients for their leafy and needled neighbors. And as a perennial, mesquite wouldn’t require replanting each year. The system, the paper argues, would have more biodiversity, more carbon storage, less need for fertilizer.
So far, government response to the manifesto and paper has been muted, though it has received some press and interest from foundations. Nabhan said that fall’s presidential election is absorbing governmental attention, and that, depending on the result, some of the study’s ideas might be able to take root. “We’re plugging along,” he said. “I just don’t think we have a chance at some governmental action until some reimagined part of the Green New Deal gets going.”
The study’s proposed systems are based on biomimicry—designs that emulate nature. This would require looking hard at one overlooked tree. If we want the Sonoran Desert and similar drylands to regain balance with the land and become truly sustainable, Nabhan said, “It’s really time to think about de-addicting ourselves from growing conventional crops like they’re made for this environment.”
How to use mesquite beans
Mesquite beans are naturally full of protein and fiber and when ground into flour, they make a nice, hearty pancake, tortilla, breads, and even goodies like cookies. It’s a gluten-free flour but doesn’t have the same lengthy shelf-life as all-purpose flour. For long-term storage, you’ll want to store your mesquite flour in the freezer or refrigerator in a very tightly sealed container.
Admittedly, for most people, it would be hard to harvest enough beans and mill them to end up with a sizable amount of flour for storage. I’ve seen this done by an urban plant nursery in the southeast Phoenix area, but they had a very large, outdoor mill, numerous trees, and even then, it was quite an operation!
This site has a number of recipes that use mesquite flour in some interesting ways, including adding a bit to smoothies and salad dressings. If harvesting and grinding mesquite beans isn’t practical for you but you would still like to taste this unique type of flour, you can purchase it on Amazon.
When you know how to utilize the plants around you, you are that much closer to becoming fully self-reliant, which is the ultimate goal when it comes to being prepared.