All About Mesquite or Devil Trees
Early-day ranchers like W.T. Waggoner called mesquite “the devil with roots,” because it absorbs all of the water in its surroundings causing other plants and trees to wither away and die, allowing more mesquites to move in and take over, and also because of its vicious thorns.
Area and Physical Traits of the Mesquite Tree
Mesquite trees are one of the toughest trees known to man with more than 40 species to be found worldwide, and 7 of those species growing in Texas. The most notably prolific of those mesquite trees growing in Texas is the honey mesquite.
Of the 167.5 million acres that Texas takes up in this United States, the honey mesquite flourishes like a bad weed on at least 56 million of them, or grow over a third of the state. 76% of all mesquite trees in the U.S. grow in Texas though they are native to other Southwestern states also.
Mesquite trees vary considerably in size. They can reach up to 50 feet tall with a branch spread of 40 feet or more, or they can turn into a shrub with many trunks. Yes, strange, I agree.
The reason a young mesquite tree will sometimes turn into a shrub is that it forks very close to the ground and if anything damages one of its new shoots -- an animal or severe weather -- the tree then evolves into a sprawling shrub closer to the ground instead of a tall tree. Sometimes it turns into a mesquite forest because the shrub expands so far.
While the honey mesquite tree has creamy white fluffy flowers from early spring all through summer into fall, and delicate feathery leaves similar to those on the mimosa tree (my favorite tree), it also has thorns that are 3 inches long coming out of the base of its leaf stems.
Those thorns are “tough as nails” according to Mary G. Ramos, self described “editor emerita,” writing for Texas State Historical Association Texas Almanac. Plenty of animals and people have experienced just how vicious they can be.
Mesquite Tree and Thorns
Close Call With Those Thorns! (Under 4 minutes)
Mesquite seedpods or beans can lie dormant for up to 40 years waiting for conditions to be just right for sprouting!
Seedpods are the means by which the mesquite tree propagates itself and those seedpods can be up to 10 inches long. The seedpods are called beans, since they resemble green beans only much larger, and they mature in late summer when they are covered with a sweet coating that has a sugar content of as much as 30%. It is common for people to chew the sweet coating off the seedpods or beans, but to spit out the beans once that coating is chewed off. Ms. Ramos says the seedpod coating is delicious.
Marjorie Woodruff, Ph.D., warns: "Remember that a plant which is eaten by animals is not necessarily safe for human consumption. There are no safe rules for determining poisonous plants. One should never eat any plant unless absolutely sure that it is an edible species. If there is any doubt, it is better to go hungry.
The beans of the mesquite tree are edible. The bean pods can be cooked and eaten like green beans when they are first forming and soft. After they have dried, they can be ground and cooked like pinto beans."
Do Mesquite Trees Come in Male and Female Varieties, and Are Mesquite Trees Toxic?
Characteristics of individuals of any plant or tree species may differ somewhat. Janet E. Laminack, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service horticulture agent, says thorns may vary in length within any one of the mesquite species simply because no two individuals are exactly the same.
I consulted with Ms. Laminack because it was suggested to me that the thorns may vary within one species according to whether the specific tree was male or female. Many plants and trees are not sex specific while others are. Mesquite trees are not sex specific, in other words they are not male or female in variety. If their thorns differ in length it is either because they are of different species or have individual differences within the same species.
Since mesquite trees of different species do often look very similar I recommend that anyone trying to determine a tree’s species examine the trees in qestion very carefully for differences.
The second most common mesquite tree in the U.S., the velvet mesquite, can grow as tall as the honey mesquite and is generally the larger of the two trees, with a trunk around 24 inches in diameter. The thorns are often an inch or so longer also. The leaves look similar and most people do not think of trunk diameter as a dicerning characteristic among trees, so it may be possible to think there is only one species of tree growing in your backyard when in fact there is two.
Another issue that has come to my attention is that some people have very unpleasant reactions from being pricked by the thorns of a mesquite tree — aside from the physical pain and damage that often occurs.
The swelling and other symptoms people experience are the result of a sensitivity or allergic reaction the unfortunate person has to the tree or something left on the part of the tree that person had contact with. Fur, hair, dander, feces, or something else not so obvious may have been left behind by an animal that was in the tree, or a person may simply have a sensitivity/allergy to mesquite trees.
I know from personal experience with allergies that an allergy may not be known to a person until that person’s skin is broken (scratched, cut, or torn in some way) by the allergen. Or when an allergen is introduced to an already existing scratch, cut, or tear in one’s skin that has not yet healed.
So the final answer is that no, mesquite trees are not toxic, and no, they are not sex specific as in separate male and female varieties.
University of Arizona
University of Arizona, Aridus Bulletin
Interesting Item About the Mesquite Seedpods
DuHamel says regarding the harvesting of mesquite seedpods or beans, “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.”
The Mesquite Tree Has Soft, Silky Leaves, and Giant Mesquite Bugs
What Are Mesquite Trees Good For?
To continue the subject of the previous paragraph, the seedpods can be not only sweet, but also quite nutritious. Writing for Tucsoncitizen.Com, Jonathan DuHamel says, “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.”
Another insect commonly found on mesquite trees is the giant mesquite bug, pictured in this article. The mesquite bugs usually gather in groups in the mesquite trees, so between their size and the fact that they’re clustered, you cannot miss them.
The mesquite tree is a legume and actually restores nitrogen back into the soil where it grows. The wood from the tree is highly valued by many furniture makers and artisans for sculptures. It is so hard that it is sometimes called Texas ironwood. The thorns are just as hard and very unforgiving.
The mesquite tree is perhaps best known for the yummy flavor its woodchips add to grilled foods like fish, beef, pork, chicken, some vegetables – especially corn on the cob, and even grilled pizza and toast!
The mesquite trees provide food for livestock when grass is not plentiful or downright non-existent, and shade to some extent, though it tends to have a lot of sunny patches included. It also provides food to a wide variety of wildlife.
While mesquite trees have many positive aspects, it is not generally anyone's first choice for landscaping or shade in their yard.
Mesquite Trees Are Winning the War With Ranchers
While many ranchers try to eradicate the mesquite tree, Clay Coppedge writing for Texas Co-op Power, says everything they have done to accomplish that end so far has favored the mesquite tree. While ranchers may be winning the occasional battle, mesquite trees appear to be winning the war!
Texas Is Not the Most Hospitable Place
A Native Texan Once Told Me That Texas is one of the most inhospitable places to humans on the planet, coming in just behind Australia. He said that because he believed that Texas has more poisonous critters, and more vegetation that has briars and thorns and poisonous saps than any other place on Earth – except Australia. I do not know if that is true, but I do know that Texas has its share (and maybe a little more) of all the things that man talked about.
Survival Traits of the Mesquite Tree
The taproots of mesquite trees can grow from 25 to 75 feet down to reach a water supply and are legendary for growing deep. According to Ms. Ramos quoting from the Texas Almanac, “In Texas Highways magazine in 1979, Steve Wilson, then director of the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Oklahoma, reported some mesquite taproots a phenomenal 175 feet long.”
A couple of the things that make this tree so hardy is that it can adapt and do well in any kind of soil except soggy. Another advantage it has it that its seedpods can lie dormant for as long as 40 years while waiting for just the right conditions for sprouting. The mesquite tree is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring making it less likely that its tender new buds will be damaged by an unexpected late freeze.
While the honey mesquite tree continues to annoy ranchers and some other people, it does seem to have a lot of good uses and benefits. It is a Texas icon and a must see for any visitors to the Lone Star State.
Mesquite Tree Growing in Its Natural Environment
Texas Coop Power
Giant mesquite bugs
Marjorie Woodruff on what desert plants are edible
Questions & Answers
How can I control or eliminate mesquite trees?
My best advice is to contact your county agent who should have that information tailored to your specific locality and it's free. I have never tried to do anything with mesquite trees, but I know people who cuss them continually, so prepare for a difficult experience.
Are the Mesquite trees' root of value?
I have read that some people dig up the root as much as possible, let it dry, and use it as fuel just like the bark or wood part of the tree. Otherwise, I'm not aware of any special use it has.
© 2013 C E Clark