Cochise County Plants: The Velvet Mesquite, Prosopis Velutina

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Aside from grasses and such, the Prosopis velutina or velvet mesquite is the most abundant plant on our southern Cochise County acreage. Before moving to Arizona in 2009, I knew of mesquite only through western literature. Now it’s a well known friend, eliciting an occasional yelp when a twig on the ground drives a thorn up through a rubber soled shoe and into my foot but otherwise deeply respected and loved.

Our mesquite trees are hardy, needing nothing more than the summer monsoon rains to thrive in this desert land. They provide forage for many different species of birds and even more types of insects, which are often the true targets for the birds. They also provide great cover, especially for small ground burrowing mammals like the kangaroo rats that dig their tunnels in among the roots, screened from predators by overhanging foliage and quite a few thorns.

It’s general knowledge that mesquite wood imparts a superior flavor to grilled meat and that mesquite beans can be toasted, then ground to produce a sweet, all purpose flour. It’s less well known that the tree has some remarkable medicinal uses…and the cosmetic benefit of helping to grow hair on a man’s head. As Wikipedia puts it,

Medicinal uses: Sore throats were treated with a hot tea made from a blend of the clear sap plus inner red bark. Stomach aches were treated with a tea made from the fresh leaves. Toothache was treated by chewing the soft inner bark of the root.

For flagging appetite, a tea made from the dried leaves was taken before meals.

Cosmetic uses: Most important to a select number of folks was mesquite’s use against hair loss. This treatment was used by men only, and consisted of the black sap that oozes from mesquite wounds (not the clear sap) mixed with other secret herbs and applied to the scalp. Special mesquite herbal soap for “macho” hair is still available in parts of Mexico.

Velvet mesquite is also hard to kill. Ranchers and real estate developers who want to get rid of a stand of mesquite are often compelled to yank the entire trees out by their mighty taproots, using a bulldozer or backhoe for pulling power. That’s a grim spectacle for a tree hugger (and woe to the tree hugger who hugs a thorny mesquite), but it’s about the only way to murder a mesquite. Cutting the tree down doesn’t do a thing but encourage it; within days–or at most weeks–new growth will show, sprouting up from the sides of the stump.

We know that for a fact, having a few mesquite trees near our house that need cutting back from time to time if we want to have clearance to walk around without stepping on either a thorny twig or perhaps a hidden, fanged Mojave green rattlesnake.

These mesquite stumps were cut back close to the ground a few weeks ago and are already showing new growth.

These mesquite stumps were cut back close to the ground a few weeks ago and are already showing new growth.

One of our regular readers has been more than a mite curious about mesquite flowers. Her inquiries finally prompted this post, which was admittedly overdue.

The flowers of the velvet mesquite actually bloom as yellow catkins, looking nothing like any other flower with which I’m familiar. One thing about it: When a mesquite is in bloom, any desert rat knows at a glance that he’s looking at a mesquite.

Velvet mesquite in bloom.  The yellow catkins are definitely distinctive.

Velvet mesquite in bloom. The yellow catkins are definitely distinctive.

It’s not hard (for me, at least) to imagine the animals of the desert eyeballing those mesquite flowers and smiling. Just about every mammal out there chows down on mesquite bean pods when they’re available. From ground squirrels to peccaries, from coyotes to cows, they love those pods. Humans don’t usually try eating the pods directly, but we have at least one mesquite farmer in the area who is cultivating and harvesting both screwbean mesquite and velvet mesquite beans, then processing them for sale.

The progression from yellow catkin (flower) to bright green immature bean pod to purplish-reddish bean pod to faded mature pod is little short of fascinating. Since today is June 22nd, it’s a bit early in the season to get photos of the final stage, but the earlier stages are already in plentiful supply.

Immature velvet mesquite bean pods, newly formed from catkins.

Immature velvet mesquite bean pods, newly formed from catkins.

Velvet mesquite beans clearly developing inside the still-bright-green pods.

Velvet mesquite beans clearly developing inside the still-bright-green pods.

Green mesquite pods in the foreground, another older batch beginning to turn color in the background.

Green mesquite pods in the foreground, another older batch beginning to turn color in the background.

Velvet mesquite bean pods moving toward the purplish-red stage.

Velvet mesquite bean pods moving toward the purplish-red stage.

Mesquite is not the nastiest thorn bearing tree in the Universe, but it’s no pushover, either. A lot of the thorns are short, especially out toward the tips of branches, but some can penetrate an inch or more through hide and unsuspecting flesh. One fine morning during our first months on the property, Pam thought for sure I’d been gunned down or bitten by a rattlesnake at the very least. I was wearing Walmart tennis shoes, poking around behind our camp trailer, and a mesquite thorn had nailed me right through my left shoe, slicing into the ball of my foot to the bone. My bellow of pain and surprise was apparently…epic.

Most mesquite thorns won’t nail you like that through a thick-soled workboot, but not because they’re not sharp enough. They definitely are. It’s just that the majority of mesquite thorns aren’t long enough to get the job done…most of the time, anyway.

Wait a sec. That’s not it. It’s just that you’re more likely to notice branches big enough to host the longer thorns and avoid stepping on them in the first place.

Velvet mesquite thorns.

Velvet mesquite thorns.

More velvet mesquite thorns.

More velvet mesquite thorns.

Mesquite has two different types of bark. When it’s young, the bark is smooth and more or less brown in color. As the tree matures, however, the bark changes completely, becoming gray and shredded.

Young mesquite bark is smooth and more or less brown in color.

Young mesquite bark is smooth and more or less brown in color.

Mature velvet mesquite bark, gray and shredded.  This patriarch is the centerpiece of our front yard.

Mature velvet mesquite bark, gray and shredded. This patriarch is the centerpiece of our front yard.

What? You’d like to see what the overall tree looks like?

Why, certainly. We saved the best for last, doncha know.

A middle aged velvet mesquite tree in our back yard.  This beauty stands about 15 feet tall and roughly 40 feet from side to side.

A middle aged velvet mesquite tree in our back yard. This beauty stands about 15 feet tall and roughly 40 feet from side to side.

On our acreage, a fully mature mesquite tree is lucky to reach 15 feet in height. Ten miles northwest of here, en route to Sierra Vista, the species will sometimes top 50 feet. Just west of our property, there’s not a one that reaches beyond 8 feet. That’s quite a commentary on the differences in soil and moisture conditions.

The grandfather mesquite in our front yard.  This fully mature tree is pruned severely on occasion as some of its main branches die off, but it's still hanging in there.

The grandfather mesquite in our front yard. This fully mature tree is pruned severely on occasion as some of its main branches die off, but it’s still hanging in there.

Some mesquite trees live to be 100 years of age or more. Based on that scale, and considering the signs of aging it has shown in recent years, it’s likely the patriarch in our front yard is already in its 90’s.

6 thoughts on “Cochise County Plants: The Velvet Mesquite, Prosopis Velutina

  1. I have a couple of beauties in my yard, as you know. I love the two right off our back deck. I have seen no signs of beans on them though. I think they may bloom at different times. I haven’t seen blooms on them either.

  2. Yes, you do have some beauties. And you’re probably right about the blooming at different times. We have some that don’t get going until later in the year, sometimes not until the monsoons are pretty much over in August or so. Pam is deeply concerned about the age of the grandfather in our front yard; she doesn’t want it dying before she does.

  3. It’s amazing how the flowers morph into bean pods. I’ll bet it’s cool to watch the transformation. But those thorns! They look like they can do some serious damage if you’re not careful. Have you ever eaten anything made of mesquite flour? I’ve never heard of it.

    Thanx for posting this Ghost. Now I see the plant I emailed is nothing like the mighty mesquite tree. 40′ across – Wow!

  4. It is interesting to observer, for sure. And yes, the thorns are definitely stickery.

    I’ve not eaten anything made with mesquite flour to date. However, the history of mesquite flour as a staple for quite a few indigenous peoples is amply documented in scientific literature. Here’s a link to one of the more interesting articles I’ve found:

    http://www.bashanfoundation.org/felker/felkerflour.pdf

  5. Very interesting. I never knew any of this. It sounds like scientists are working on genetically modifying certain mesquite varieties. That’s not good.

  6. No, it’s not. I read one article which talked about hybrid mesquite, a cross between Chilean mesquite and our own velvet mesquite. Turns out the hybrid is used a lot for landscaping but has real problems including a shallow root system (which doesn’t access water and nutrients like the deep taproots of the velvet, and also allows the trees to blow down a lot under severe wind conditions). Also–and perhaps most important of all–animals of all sorts, from birds to insects, etc., avoid the tree. They apparently know enough not to like it, whereas they love the velvet mesquite.

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