The Mesquite—A Sweet Mystery of Life
The mystery comes early in its life. The sweetness comes later.
“THE mesquite is the only shrub that can reach the water table here with its roots. But a mesquite seedling must send its roots down 30 feet [9 m] or more through dry sand before it reaches this water. How, then, does it get established? This is one of the unsolved mysteries of the desert.” The Scientific American magazine that said this was talking about the mesquite in California’s Death Valley.
The mesquite seeds themselves are of some help. They rarely grow if merely planted in the soil. But if the seedpods are eaten by animals, whole seeds that pass through the digestive tract sprout readily. Digestive juices erode the tough seed coat, allowing moisture to penetrate and start germination. When passed by the animal, the seeds have a supply of manure to aid the seedling’s initial growth. Moreover, that growth is concentrated in a taproot—little growth occurs above ground until the taproot has found groundwater 30 or more feet [9 m] below.
In other deserts local rains may help, but in Death Valley a rainfall of 1.35 inches [3.43 cm] spread out over a year’s time would be negligible. How the seedlings survive there while taproots grow 30 feet [9 m] or more in dry sand is the unsolved mystery. Even in other deserts the feat is remarkable, especially since some mesquite roots go down 200 feet [60 m] to find water! The Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, tells of a mine where mesquite roots were found at a depth of 175 feet [53 m].
But once the roots hit water, the plant above ground takes off. Where the underground supply is plentiful, the mesquite tree may reach over 40 feet [12 m] in height and 3 or 4 feet [0.9 to 1.2 m] in diameter. Other desert plants may wither and die during desert droughts, but the mesquite stays green. Its deep roots drink from underground waters fed by the rains and snows of distant mountains. It also has a web of surface roots extending out from its base, and these pick up moisture from passing showers. But it is the deep-probing taproots that locate the underground reservoirs so efficiently that well diggers sink their wells nearby.
The Docent Note Book for the Sonoran Desert Museum offers this information as to the mesquite’s usefulness:
“At one time it was of great value as a timber tree in the desert. It is still used for fence posts, charcoal and firewood. (It is slow-burning and produces a hot fire with good flavor.) Violin bows are sometimes made from the root wood. The inner bark furnished both Indians and settlers with material for basketry, coarse fabrics and medicine to treat a variety of disorders. Gum which exudes from the stem is collected and sold for manufacture of candy (gum drops). [It provides] mucilage (for mending pottery).”
“Mesquite was of major importance to settlers and Indians. When crops failed both subsisted upon the meal (pinole) made from the pod and seeds. In the war with the Apaches, the U. S. Cavalry considered pods so valuable as feed for horses that they would pay 3 cents a pound for Mesquite beans. . . . The pods are highly nutritious, containing 20 to 30% grape sugar (dextrose, glucose and simple sugar). They are also very high in protein (higher than soybeans).”
Where the Sweetness Comes In
But there is another use for the mesquite shrub or tree. From spring to early summer, long, fat, yellow blooms hang from the tree like huge fuzzy caterpillars. And they are the source that adds sweetness to the mystery of the mesquite tree’s life.
Ralph Lusby is a third-generation beekeeper who keeps hives where the mesquite flourishes in the Arizona desert. He was interviewed by an Awake! correspondent and made these comments:
“Near dry streambeds I’ve seen mesquite trees that get plenty of water give three full blooms in a season. On a good mesquite honey flow, my bees give 85 to 90 percent mesquite honey, mixed with 10 to 15 percent cat’s-claw honey. I’ve tasted lots of honey in my life, but mesquite is by far the best. It’s the mildest of all honey. It lacks the strong honey aftertaste, so it makes a great sweetener. People who don’t like honey usually like mesquite honey. Because it is mild, however, if it is mixed with stronger honeys it may be overwhelmed by them. One year my father and I mixed one gallon of citrus with ten gallons of mesquite, and it all tasted like citrus honey!
“My major mesquite honey flow is from April 20 to June 10, on the average. I remember that when the national average of honey taken from a hive (about 60,000 bees) was 42 to 43 pounds [19.0 to 19.5 kg] of honey a year, my bees were giving me 117 pounds [53 kg] per hive. Some beekeepers are stingy with their bees, not leaving them enough honey for the winter. I leave 60 pounds [27 kg] per hive. They also need water. In some parts of the desert, I bring several 55-gallon [210 L] drums for them to use in drinking and in cooling the hive. A group of 40 hives located at an elevation of 2,500 feet [760 m] will use 6 or 7 gallons [23 to 26 L] a day during summer. I love my bees. They take care of me, and I take care of them!”
But it is the mesquite with its sweetness that takes care of both. It also provides a mystery for the mind of man to ponder, and inspires thankfulness in the heart of those who appreciate its Creator.
[Box/Picture on page 18]
There are no doubt many unknown and untold ways the mesquite tree remains unique. But for now the sun sets on this season of honey production, and the mesquite has played out its vital role in the desert’s ecology once more. The heavy rains will soon begin. Afterward this desert tree will become dormant, only to revive again next spring to help grateful bees produce exquisite honey to the joy of man and beast.
[Pictures on page 17]
The beekeeper points out the queen bee
Close-up of bee on mesquite