Publications (Paul's Blog)

November 19, 2009

THE MISUNDERSTOOD MESQUITE

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 10:56 pm

Several decades ago, a fellow by the name of Jim Hightower who had just been elected CEO of our Texas Department of Agriculture mentioned mesquite during a speech before a large congregation of farmers and ranchers. Mr. Hightower was quoted as having made a statement that if we could find or create a market for mesquite and prickly pear that we here in Texas could make a bundle off those products. This drew a good laugh from the audience as most of those present were certain Jim was making a joke. He was not. In fact he was dead serious and his words rang true as today we find an expanding market and many uses for both mesquite and prickly pear. This article will deal with the mesquite which to this day continues to suffer from a bad reputation.
mesquite2 First things first. Although most Texans and even a few notable historians still believe that mesquite invaded into Texas from Mexico, this has been proven entirely false. Several 16th century Spaniards gave accounts of mesquite in various parts of what is now Texas. One of the best accounts came from Cabeza de Vaca himself when he wrote of the preparation of mesquite beans by local Indians which kept the Spaniards from starving as they wandered the Rio Grande Plains. In North Texas, early explorers Lt. J.W. Albert and Capt. Randolph Marcy both described mesquite during their travels into the Rolling Plains and High Plains in the 1840’s. This was a good thirty years prior to the great cattle drives or establishment of the big cattle ranches that later brought settlers to these areas.
Besides the historical accounts we have the record of the trees themselves. Ring studies of venerable old mesquite place them in Texas well before the European settlement. In truth, the cattle industry actually did cause the spread of mesquite on pasturelands as we suppressed fire, fenced the land, and overgrazed the pastures. Cattle love the astonishingly high sugar content of the beans. Still, I suppose you could say that mesquites did come from Mexico since prior to 1836, Texas WAS Mexico!
Fire is the natural control of mesquite and apparently is what kept them in check during the days of the Plains Indian and the buffalo. Fire is once again being employed by the larger ranches, astute landowners, and our Parks and Wildlife Department with good success. We are finding that a good hot burn during the right season will suppress the smaller trees while leaving the valuable older trees only slightly damaged. Compared to mechanical or chemical controls, fire does a pretty good job while being more cost effective hands down. Instead of spending millions of dollars on mechanical or chemical controls, we should learn more about controlled burns. For good data and other info contact Texas Parks and Wildlife and The Noble Foundation. Then get in touch with your local fire department. Likely they already have a procedure to help you get started
I have been observing several properties that were sprayed last year. Apparently there is some kind of cost share subsidy program available to encourage ranchers to spray at present. So far what I’ve observed is most of the trees that were sprayed last year are growing back nicely this year. In my opinion, all that they have succeeded in doing has been to make a lot of healthy trees look ugly with maybe a true kill ratio of 20% or so.
Mesquites are legumes (member of the bean family) and as such are great soil builders. Certain bacteria (rhizobium) that live in root nodules actually convert free nitrogen from the air and store it in the surrounding soil. Useable nitrogen levels are generally four to five times greater under mesquite canopies when compared to nearby soils without mesquite coverage. I find it ironic that early ranchers all sang praise to the mesquite for producing lush grasses and providing nutritious beans, especially during drought years, but modern day ranchers all cuss it. Of course the early ranchers were not facing the choked off pastures we see today.
Mesquite are being grown commercially to be used for land reclamation. Both Australia and Africa in particular are planting mesquite in desert areas. Hopes are that these pioneermesquite1 trees will improve soils enough over time to turn useless sand into grasslands.
In the past twenty years or so, mesquite has become the most highly prized cooking wood. We are now shipping Texas mesquite pretty much worldwide. Mr. Hightower wasn’t kidding. Mesquite is also being used in furniture, wood flooring, gun stocks, tool handles, and of course, fence posts. In fact, mesquite has surpassed black walnut as the most desirable wood for any crafted item. Check the price tag on anything made from mesquite. It ain’t cheap!! It has been known for a long time that mesquite wood is hard and durable. It is also exquisitely beautiful when polished or finished correctly. The problem has always been finding big pieces that are straight enough to use as lumber. Be that as it may, the number of craftsmen producing mesquite wood items continues to rise dramatically.
There are still plenty of uses for mesquite that have yet to be exploited. The high sugar content of the bean gives us the possibility that it could be fermented and made into gasohol. Unlike corn which has to be replanted and fertilized every year, mesquite can live and produce beans for a century or more at no cost. Mesquite are also high in cellulose which could make it useful as fiberboard or paper products. Mesquite may also work well as a garden mulch. With nothing more than a chipper/shredder and a stump grinder we could easily turn a choked off pasture into mulch or even compost. Imagine being able to harvest products over and over again without having to plow, plant, or fertilize. Time may come in the not too distant future that mesquite will be harvested and used rather than bulldozed into piles to be burned.
Mesquite also make a superior landscaping tree. Think of that age old battle between lawn grasses and trees. Homeowners have always attempted to grow grass under large shade trees to no avail. While most would prefer a grass that would thrive in deep shade, such a grass still doesn’t exist in the nursery trade. Perhaps we should take a closer look at the trees rather than trying to force grass to grow where it doesn’t want to. A better solution is to consider trees that cast less shade to allow the grasses we already have in use to have enough sunlight to grow. Not only will any and all of the popular lawn grasses grow right up to the trunk of a mesquite, they will actually flourish. The shade cast by mesquite is enough to make things more comfortable for humans while allowing sun loving plants to exist plus let’s not forget about all that free nitrogen that grasses love. I believe the old adage is that during a serious drought, the last bit of green grass will be found under a mesquite. Hence the mesquite is the perfect tree for lawn culture.
Beside the lawn grass aspect, mesquite are really more interesting to look at than your standard issue “lollipop” shade tree. The graceful arching branch patterns create endless combinations for the viewer. Mesquite are generally short in stature so they lend themselves to easy pruning or harvesting of wood. They also tend to fit nicely in tight spots and will generally stay underneath power lines. In fact, mesquite was listed by Texas Electric as one of the top ten trees for growing near power lines. Aside from the thorns which only exist on the young branches you will be hard pressed to find a more user friendly tree. Perfectly adapted to most of the state, extreme drought tolerance, soil improvement, plus resistance to insects and disease while at the same time able to regenerate quickly should damage occur. All this and a steady supply of some of the best cooking wood or firewood on the planet.
My customers often ask me what is the best tree to grow here on the Rolling Plains. I answer with another question, “What is the tree we see most often?” The reply, “Mesquite trees?” I say “That’s correct,” and then the customer usually laughs and makes some derogatory remark I laugh too, thinking of Mr. Hightower, because I’m pretty sure if Jim were here beside me…………there would be a sly grin upon his face.

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