Our Good Old Widespread Mesquite
by Ro Wauer
Now we learn that mesquite wood could possible be utilized in producing ethanol to run our vehicles. According to an October 12, 2006, Advocate editorial, the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Lockett is exploring whether mesquite can be utilized in producing cellulosic ethanol. Supposedly, it burns cleaner than ethanol made from corn. Wow! Such an occurrence could add just one more use of a natural resource that is so very abundant throughout much of the Southwestern United States, and is especially commonplace in Texas.
For many, many years, mesquite wood and beans have been used for an enormous variety of purposes, from furniture, fencing, barbeques, and food. Flowering trees produce fragrant yellow flowers that honeybees utilize for producing a distinct, clear, amber-colored, and sought-after honey. And mesquite beans, that ripen by September or October, provide choice foods for lots of wildlife, including deer, javelina, woodrats, and even some of our predators like coyotes and foxes. Although not many people take advantage of these beans anymore, there was a time when Native Americans and settlers in the Southwest considered them an extremely valuable natural resource. The U.S. Cavalry, while chasing Indians in West Texas and New Mexico, paid three cents a pound for mesquite beans.
Both the mesquite leaves and pods contain up to 13 percent protein and 36 percent sucrose, twice as much sugar as beets and sugarcane. The green pods actually were chewed for their sugar content, they can be cooked into a mesquite sugar that is great on pancakes, and a highly intoxicating beverage can be made from the fresh sugary pods. Once matured, the beans can be ground into flour that is good for cornbread, pan bread, and cookies.
Getting to the beans inside the pods is no easy task, however. Step one is to toast the pods for a couple of hours at 150 to 200 degrees until they are brittle. Then break them up and run them through a grinder two or more times before sifting the material through a sieve, keeping the fine material as meal. Native Americans did the same thing with a grinding stone, called a metate, and by sifting the material through basketry made from reeds and willows. The resultant pan bread could be eaten then or stored for later use.
Indians and early settlers also used the mesquite's brown gum for dyes and paint and for mending pots. Medicinally, a tea made from the leaves and gum has been used as eyewash and for sore throats; tea made from the leaves and inner bark has been used as an emetic; and a boiled gum drink served as a purgative. Cradle boards were made from the roots, sharpened snags were used as plows, and the hard wood was used for hubs and spokes of wagon wheels.
We take so much for granted today, buying whatever foods and hardware we desire at the local stores, but early Texans could not run down to the store every time something caught their fancy. Not only did they have to plan ahead, but they had to spend every waking minute searching for or preparing for their next meal. They learned a great deal about what could and could not be eaten from the local Native Americans. They also learned a great deal about other uses of native plants and animals. But few native plants were as valuable as mesquite.