FAMILY: Fabaceae or Leguminosae (Pea family)
VELVET MESQUITE (Prosopis velutina)
SCREWBEAN MESQUITE (Prosopis pubescens)
HONEY MESQUITE (Prosopis juliflora)
Tohono & Hia c-ed O’odham Name: kui
Yeome Name: hu’upa
Spanish Names: mezquite and algarobba
The Velvet Mesquite is the most common native mesquite tree in the Tucson/Phoenix area. It is the true local, native mesquite of southern Arizona. It can grow up to 30 feet tall and typically is a multi-trunked tree. It has a compound leaf and a long pod that can range from tan, with or without purple streaks, to dark purple. Young, new growth of the tree may have thorns. It has a trunk that is smooth when the tree is young and grows shaggy with age. While the trees prefer full sun, they are also cold-hardy to 5 degrees F. These trees are found in flood plains and along arroyos. The Velvet is our tree of choice for planting in and around Tucson and Phoenix. It has a long lifespan, is drought tolerant, and mature trees can have a 15-foot canopy.
The Screwbean Mesquite is another native mesquite with a much smaller range than the Velvet. The Screwbean used to be more common in riparian areas, but is less common now due to habitat loss. It has a smaller canopy and smaller, sparser leaves than the Velvet, and therefore is not as good of a shade tree. It is drought tolerant, but much less so than the Velvet, and is best planted near a water-harvesting basin that gets ample water. As the name suggests, rather than a straight pod, the pod is wound up like a corkscrew. It dries to a golden yellow color.
Honey Mesquite is native to North America. There are two varieties: one originates from Texas, and the other from California and western Arizona. Due to many factors, the range for the Honey Mesquite is expanding and now includes southern Arizona, where both Honey Mesquite varieties are becoming increasingly common. It is similar in appearance to the Velvet, with the biggest difference being in the leaves and pod. The leaflets of the Honey Mesquite are much larger and more widely spaced on the leaf stem. The long pod is tasty, often wider than the Velvet’s, and dries to a honey color.
For all of these species, depending on winter rains and spring temperatures, the first blooms of the year may appear from April to May with golden-colored fuzzy blossoms. Some trees may have a second round of blooms in August and/or September.
A Drought-Tolerant, Food-Producing Shade Tree
Native mesquites make excellent home and neighborhood landscaping trees. Their deep roots will keep these mesquites from blowing over in strong winds, as Chilean mesquites often do. As leguminous trees, they fix nitrogen in the soil and drop leaves and pods which are much needed organic matter for the desert. When planted near a rainwater-harvesting basin, these trees will grow quickly and produce shade, cooling, and ample pods for harvesting. The leafing-out of these trees is a harbinger of spring, signifying that frosts are over until the next winter. Both growing and mature trees are excellent nurse plants, providing shade and shelter from the elements for tender young cacti.
As part of the Sonoran Desert web of life, these native trees bring native wildlife into the urban core. A variety of birds and animals eat the seed pods, including doves, quail, ravens, and bighorn sheep. The seeds, leaves, and bark are attractive to rabbits, coyote, ground squirrels, kangaroo rats, antelope, skunks, and wolves, while deer forage on the twigs and foliage. The sweetness of mesquite flower nectar attracts 60 different species of native bees, as well as wasps and butterflies. The white-winged and mourning doves favor mesquite trees as nesting sites. The tree also serves as a host site for parasitic mistletoe, which provides food for the phainopepla, a bird that eats the berries and spreads the mistletoe throughout its travels.
Mesquite Tree Guild
A plant guild is a harmonious assembly of plants, a phenomenon not unlike companion planting. The following plants get along well with mesquites: canyon and desert hackberry, velvet ash, Atriplex canenscens, panic grass, six-week gramma grass, fringed amaranth, jojoba, desert honeysuckle, condalia, greythorn, wolfberry, Mormon tea, hopbush, barberry, Texas mulberry, barrel cactus, Christmas cholla, snapdragon vine, Tumamoc globeberry, and chuparosa.
Of the mesquite trees, for Tucson, we recommend planting the native Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina). If you have a basin that receives ample water, a Screwbean Mesquite (Prosopis pubescens) is another option. In southern Arizona, the Velvet (Prosopis velutina) or Honey Mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) is a good choice.
Why Plant Natives vs. South American Mesquites?
It is recommended to plant whatever mesquites are native to your area because they are uniquely suited to grow and thrive in your climate. Unlike South American mesquites, our Sonoran natives have deep tap roots to handle our strong summer winds. Native mesquites are hardy, low-water-using, fast-growing trees. Unlike South American mesquites, native mesquite root systems rarely push up adjacent sidewalks or foundations. Natives have a beautiful canopy and multi-trunk system when pruned properly. Native plants attract native wildlife, since the two have co-evolved over millennia. Lastly, our natives tend to produce better-tasting pods. Although the South American mesquite pods are edible they are often not as sweet and are chalky in texture. South American Mesquites are beautiful trees but, for many reasons, we need our own natives in our urban areas.
WHEN: Harvest mesquite pods before the summer rains, and never wet or wash your pods—Harvest Early, Harvest Dry. This practice reduces the growth of molds/fungus on pods. There is a relationship between an invisible fungus (Aspergillus flavus) and a natural carcinogen known as aflatoxin B1. Recent research at the University of Arizona by Dr. Nick Garber, Dr. Sadhana Ravishankar, and the Mesquite Harvest Working Group showed a clear correlation between aflatoxin levels and rainfall. Many mature pods harvested after a single rainfall (a single event during which they got wet) were unsafe for human consumption due to high aflatoxin levels. These same studies found mesquite pods harvested before the rains had safe aflatoxin levels—well below the minimum levels allowed by aflatoxin sampling of food products. The Tucson mesquite pod harvest season is mid to late June. Ripe pods range in color from yellowish tan to reddish or purplish (not green), and are dry and brittle. They come off the tree easily.
WHERE: Harvest pods from the tree, not the ground. When you harvest from the ground there is greater risk of the pods having come into contact with fecal matter, herbicides, pollutants (like oil dripped from cars), fungus from the soil, or irrigation water that may increase the amount of fungus or mold on the pods. You can find quality pods on trees in washes, small drainages, city parks (as long as sprinkler irrigation has not come into contact with the pods), backyards, and along low-traffic neighborhood streets. Often, city trees are the most abundant producers because they receive supplemental water in the form of runoff from nearby rooftops, patios, and streets—especially when people have set up water-harvesting earthworks around or beside the trees.
HOW: Pick ripe pods from the tree. Taste one to judge its sweetness before continuing to harvest from that particular tree. Flavor varies from tree to tree. The sweeter the better! A good-tasting pod will have no chalkiness, no slight burning sensation in the throat, no drying out of your mouth, and no bad aftertaste. Pull gently and the pods should come right off. If you have to pull hard, they’re not ready yet! Pick only those pods that are good-tasting, clean, and nice-looking (free off black mold).
DRY: Dry pods should snap easily in two when you try to bend them. If they are not dry, lay them out in the sun on a cloth, metal roofing, or the hood of your car until they pass the snap test. Drying may take 1 to 3 days.
STORE: Once pods are dry, store them in a dry, rodent-free place until milling day. Store in food-grade containers or bags. Used, clean food-grade buckets make good storage containers. You can get these buckets (with lids) from donut shops, grocery-store bakeries, or the eegees corporate office in Tucson (the eegees buckets have nice strong metal handles). NOTE: Plastic garbage cans are NOT for storing food because the plastic in the cans often contains harmful biocides.
INSECTS: Bruchid beetles may hatch out of the pods during storage—they are what make the small holes in the pods—but they are harmless! Allow the bruchid beetles to escape and most will leave on their own accord. If storage container is open to insects, beneficial tiny wasps can also enter the container to predate upon the bruchid beetles.To avoid beetles, freeze your pods. Remember, though, to thaw and dry pods at least three days before milling so they snap easily in two when you bend them.
MILLING: Take your mesquite pods to the Desert Harvesters June milling event. Staff operate a Meadows Mills #5 hammermill, which mills 5 gallons of pods into 1 gallon of flour in about 5 minutes. Be sure the pods you bring for milling are clean and free of mold as well as gravel, dirt, or any other debris that could damage the mill or contaminate your flour or that of people whose pods are milled after yours. Only properly prepared pods will be milled!
COST: Check the Desert Harvesters website for up-to-date milling fees.
ECONOMICS: It takes about 2 leisurely hours to pick, clean, dry, store, and mill 5 gallons of whole pods into 1 gallon (or 5 lbs) of mesquite flour. You can sell mesquite flour for about $15 per pound assuming you sell directly to customers. Depending on how fast you work, you can earn $25 per hour for the combined tasks of picking, drying, storing, milling and packaging! The economics are especially favorable if all of the activities occur within or near your neighborhood. Of course you can also just enjoy and share your harvest for free.
EAT: Mesquite is a versatile food. It can be milled and used as flour, or you can make syrup from the whole pods or milling chaff and use that as a sweetener. For ideas about how to use mesquite in cooking visit our recipe page or purchase a copy of EAT MESQUITE!, our fabulous cookbook full of delicious pre-tested recipes.
For more mesquite-harvesting and -processing information, some new, some overlapping, click here.
Click to download the information from the section above as a PDF file: Eat Mesquite! (File unavailable while new version is in the works.)
(credits correction: URL for Bean Tree Farm is www.BeanTreeFarm.com)
Workshop Description: The Native Mesquite workshop has been designed to be used in situations both with and without electricity and access to a computer. It is a hands-on workshop that teaches the basics of how to identify, harvest, and process Mesquite pods. It is recommended to be given in a situation where you can discuss the information and then go out when pods are ripe and actually harvest, giving participants hands-on experience with tasting and picking good pods. The season for this is usually early summer and sometimes through fall, although this varies with elevation and yearly rainfall. However, if actual harvesting is not possible, the workshop can be given indoors without the harvesting component.
The workshop begins with discussion about the importance of planting native trees in urban areas and using water-harvesting techniques to maintain these trees around one’s home and neighborhood. Participants then engage in activities to learn how to identify the various mesquites, and how to harvest and process their pods for storage and milling. They also learn tips on how to use unmilled mesquite pods and good ways to incorporate mesquite flour into their cooking and baking.
This Workshop Kit Contains:
- Labeled jars with dry samples of Mesquite pods including: Velvet with a variety of pod color variations, Honey Mesquite, Screwbean Mesquite, Chilean Mesquite, Velvet/Chilean Hybrid, pods with bruchid beetle damage, pods with mold, mesquite chaff leftover from milling pods, and mesquite flour (from Velvet, Peruvian, Argentinean, and Honey Mesquites) with sample spoons.
- A flash drive with:
- PowerPoint presentation with photos of basics of rainwater harvesting, mesquite trees, plant parts for identification and processing and storage options
- Mesquite video
- Workshop outline in Microsoft Word, and
- Instructions for gathering plant samples to bring to the workshop.
- Laminated color photos of all slides in the PowerPoint presentation.
- Eat Mesquite! Pocket Guides for handouts.
- A copy of Eat Mesquite! A Cookbook, for display.
Other Desert Foods Workshops
Desert Harvesters offers workshops on harvesting, processing, and cooking with a variety of desert foods: Mesquite, Prickly Pear Fruit and Pads, Desert Ironwood, and Palo Verde. If you prefer a generalist approach, or need a workshop that is indoors and doesn’t include harvesting, we also offer a 2-hour Desert Foods Overview which combines the individual plant kits and offers a simple introduction to these plants and foods rather than in-depth explorations into each. Contact us for more information.
Need a Workshop Instructor? Hire a Desert Harvester!
Experienced harvesters are available to teach a workshop for your organization, business, or school. Please contact us for information on availability and fees.
Funds for this project were provided by the Urban and Community Forestry Financial Assistance Program administered through the State of Arizona Forestry Division – Urban and Community Forestry and the USDA Forest Service.