Plants Of the AUUC: The Mesquite Tree

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Our church is blessed by having nearly three acres of land including nearly an acre of natural woodland. This land has been preserved and nurtured by us since we first acquired it in the late 1960s, nearly 50 years ago. As is true of any healthy piece of land, it includes numerous species of plants. This column will feature some among them from time to time.misqutee_tree

Mesquite Tree

The ubiquitous mesquite grows from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle, across Central and North Central Texas, and into much of West Texas. Of all the mesquite in the United States, 76% grows in Texas, including seven varieties, the most widely distributed being Prosopis glandulosa var. glandulosa, also called honey mesquite.

Mesquite trees vary in size but may grow up to 40 to 50 feet tall, with a spread of 40 feet or more. The leaves are delicate and feathery but sharp thorns up to two inches long emerge from the base of the leaf stems. Fluffy, creamy-white flowers appear from spring to autumn. The beans, which mature in late summer, develop in a pod between four and nine inches long. When ripe, the beans are covered by a sweetish coating, which has a sugar content as high as 30%. Mesquite beans furnish food for livestock when grass is scarce. The trees also provide light shade for the animals. Mesquites supply food and cover for wildlife including quail, dove, raven, turkey, mallard duck, white-tail and mule deer, wood rat, kangaroo rat, chipmunk, pocket mouse, rock squirrel, ground squirrel, prairie dog, porcupine, cottontail, jackrabbit, skunk, peccary (javelina), coyote and Mexican raccoon.

Mesquite has several characteristics that help it survive.

  • It adapts to almost any soil that is not soggy.
  • Mesquite beans can lie dormant for many years waiting for the right conditions for sprouting.
  • Taproots of mesquites are legendary, often 25 to 65 feet in length. The lateral roots may fan out up to 50 feet in all directions.
  • The mesquite is one of the last trees to leaf out, usually in May, and therefore is rarely hurt by spring cold snaps.

The Aztecs called the tree mizquitl, which the Spaniards Hispanicized into mesquite. Early Anglo-Texans spelled the word in a variety of ways: mesquit, mezquit, muskeet and musquit.

Historians once believed that mesquite was originally limited to extreme South Texas and spread north only after the Civil War when cattle drives became frequent. But well before the heyday of cattle drives, mesquite was growing in the same areas where it is found today. Mesquite trees were part of Texas’ landscape long before Spanish explorers, in the early 1500s, first recorded finding them, mainly along Texas’ rivers, creeks and draws, but also completely covering some prairies. What has increased since then is not the range, but the density. The primary reasons for the density increase seem to be the actions of the ranchers themselves: control of prairie fires, overgrazing, eradication of prairie dogs. Range specialists believe that prairie dogs inhibit the spread of mesquite by eating beans, pods, and tender new shoots.
— adapted from an article written by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 2006-2007.

On our church grounds several old mesquites have been landmarks since the building was built in the late 1960s. They have become a part of our unique identity as a congregation. We hang bird feeders from them. The photo shows one just leafing out in springtime.


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