Friday, January 27, 2012

Mesquite Trees in Arizona

Mesquite trees belong in Arizona. As Jay Sharp, editor and author for the website DesertUsa.com, expresses, "the mesquites symbolize our Southwestern deserts" as much as "the Coyote, the Black-tail Jackrabbit, the Western Diamondback, scorpions, the Saguaro and prickly pear cacti." Indeed, mesquite trees in Arizona are "as blended into the life of the land as cornbread and tortillas." (Lometa)

Perfectly Adapted to the Desert

Native Americans Today

Mesquites are very hardy desert trees, having adapted over the centuries to life in the desert landscapes in and around Arizona. All of their corporal characteristics ensure their survival here, along with their foliage, their bean pods, and their root systems. They grow well in full sun and high temperatures, but will also tolerate the cold while Arizona's winter (down to 0º Fahrenheit). They are sometimes found in rather high elevation and will adapt to shallow rocky soils. Agreeing to reports by the U. S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service, a mesquite tree can live for more than two centuries. (Sharp)

Mesquite Trees in Arizona

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Now That the Buffalo's Gone: A Study of Today's American Indians Overview

In this book one of America’s leading writers of Indian History examines the aspirations and feelings of today’s Indians-what they want and why they want it. Using the particular histories of seven Indian tribes or groups, Alvin Josephy analyzes seven principal issues in the continuing face-off between Indians and Whites:

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Mesquite trees in Arizona can survive in areas that receive very exiguous rainfall because of their broad root system. The lateral roots of a mesquite tree reach out many times farther than its canopy. They also have very deep tap roots that can dig for a drink as deep as 175 feet below ground level, though a depth of 50 feet is more typical. So, they simultaneously have way to water both at the very top and bottom layers of the soil.

The tiny waxy leaflets of mesquite trees retain high-priced moisture by minimizing the moisture lost through transpiration. They are deciduous trees, meaning they offer excellent shade while the summer but drop their leaves and allow the sunshine through while the winter for warmth. while ultimate drought, they will diminish transpiration even supplementary by prematurely dropping their leaves.

The mesquite tree is a member of the legume house (relatives of beans and peas), which makes it especially adapted to an arid environment. Mesquite trees have the potential to fertilize themselves and surrounding plants through a symbiotic association with colonies of soil bacteria. The bacteria that inhabit mesquite tree roots turn or "fix" atmospheric nitrogen, manufacture ready in the soil this mineral that is principal for the increase and germination of plants. Many gardeners use this same process to enrich soil by planting nitrogen fixing cover crops. (Sharp, Schalau)

Mesquite trees in Arizona are amazingly prolific. Their beans, encased in protective pods, are very durable. In fact, "A seed left undisturbed in its pod can stay viable for up to 40 years." (Clayton) Animals play an foremost role in the scarification of the seeds (needed for germination) and dispersal through fecal matter.

Appearance

Mesquite trees are easy to identify, looking almost like a giant fern bush. They can reach a height of 30 feet, but the average mesquite tree growing wild in the Arizona desert is about half that size. Many have multiple trunks. Under the harshest of conditions, the mesquite will look a bush more than a tree. Their branch structure is often very twisted and jointed, adding to their private uniqueness. In the spring and early summer, they display clusters of finger-shaped protuberances covered in tiny delicate flowers. These are followed by the formation of the long, thin bean pods, which are usually a shade of brown but vary in appearance in the middle of species. Many types of mesquite trees have thorns of some kind, which can whether be very short or monstrous in distance (and all are horribly sharp!).

Three Arizona Mesquite Tree Natives & Their Cousins

There are about 40 mesquite varieties found worldwide, but three species are native to the state of Arizona. They grow not only in the Sonoran desert, but also in the Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts. Their range is astonishing, spanning tens of millions or acres from western Texas to California, from Mexico to southern parts of Utah. They can thrive in a great diversity of habitats as found within the range described. (Lometa, Sharp)

The three mesquite tree species native to Arizona are:

  • Prosopis glandulosa - known as the honey mesquite or Texas Mesquite. These usually have a weeping form, and can be quite pretty.
  • Prosopis velutina - known as the Arizona mesquite or native mesquite. Also called the velvet mesquite because of the soft hairs that cover young growth. They are rather shaggy and snarled in appearance. They are favorite in nurseries, and will grow well on lawns and golf courses.
  • Prosopis pubescens - known as the screwbean mesquite, earning its name from the spiraled or coiled shape of their seed pods.

Besides these three, there are many other types of mesquite trees that grow in Arizona. Many are hybrids of the honey, velvet or screwbean mesquite, occurring mostly where the respective ranges of these native species overlap. Others are nonnative mesquite species, most originating from South America. There is the Argentine mesquite (Prosopis alba), the Chilean mesquite (Prosopis chilensis), and numerous other varieties and their hybrids. No nonnative species will be as noteworthy to the atmosphere here as the mesquites that are native to Arizona. For example, the Chilean mesquite does not seem as tolerant of the lower winter temperatures in Arizona.

Botanical Foes

Despite their many distinct qualities, mesquite trees are considered by many as an invasive weed. In many countries covering of North and South America where they have been introduced they have been highly invasive and troublesome, especially in Australia.

The mesquite tree is cursed by inhabitants of our own Arizona desert as well. Cattlemen especially dislike them, but the overgrazing of their herds over the past integrate of centuries has exacerbated the very problem that they complain about, which is the mesquite tree's competition with grasses. In an area that is overgrazed, cattle not only threaten the populations of the natural grasses that compete with mesquite trees for water, but they also help the mesquites spread by eating and dispersing the seeds. As Frank Dobie puts it, "The white man sowed with over-grazing; he is now reaping thickets of mesquites that are stabbing millions of acres of land into non-productiveness." All efforts to thwart or control this stubborn native Arizona tree have all failed and been deemed impractical or ineffective. whether by fire, herbicide use, or corporal tree dismissal of various means, the costs and environmental side effects of trying to control the people and spread of the mesquite have made it a problem with no easy solution.

Sharp reminds us: "Uninvited guest or welcome neighbor, the mesquites belong to the desert.  They evolved in the desert.  They play a core role in the desert ecosystem." (Jay Sharp)

Historic significance and modern Uses

"Over the past some centuries, no one plant has probably played a greater and more vital role in the lives of humankind in the southwestern United States than the short stature, crooked mesquite." (excerpted from The Magnificent Mesquite by Ken E. Rogers.) Indeed, the mesquite trees strewn across the Southwest have actually saved numerous lives. They provided the "manna from heaven" for the suffering men of the 1841 Texas Santa Fe Expedition, as recorded in the journal of George W. Kendall (also quoted by Rogers). The beans are sweet and nutritious, and more protein-rich than the soybean. (Lometa)

Another food that comes from the mesquite trees in Arizona (though not directly) is honey. The swarms of bees that are strongly attracted to the mesquite flower's nectar do more than just fill their foremost role as pollinators, after all. This, however, does not perfect the list of foods derived from the mesquite. Even their sap has been utilized as sweet gum or as black dye.

'Pinole' is made by grinding the pods, with or without the beans still inside. It can be used as four or, because of its sweetness, as a condiment or spice. This mesquite flour is said to be healthy for diabetics, because it is sweetened by fructose, which the body processes without insulin. This is just one example of the many digestive and nutritional advantages of the mesquite tree and other foods of the desert that has been discovered. (Lometa)

Various parts of the mesquite tree have also been used as remedies for many dissimilar ailments by the Indians and settlers of the frontier era. Examples of the ailments that the mesquite tree helped to ease or heal are: diarrhea, dysentery, colic, flesh wounds, headaches, ailing eyes, and sore throat.

The wood, bark and pods of mesquite trees are popularly used for barbecue and for other purposes. The dry wood burns slow, hot and with very exiguous smoke. It has an unmistakable aroma. Some insist that burning the pods along with the charcoal and wood chips make the flavor even richer. (Lometa) besides for heat and for cooking, the wood has been used for the construction of Spanish missions, colonial haciendas, ranch houses and fencing. (Sharp) The Native Americans used the hard mesquite wood for spears and arrowheads, and the bark of the mesquite tree for manufacture baskets and fabrics. The thorns were used as needles. Today the wood is artistically principal for manufacture furniture or sculpture because of its sometimes dark colors and gorgeous gnarled patterns.

Of course, mesquite trees in Arizona are useful not only to humans but also to our wildlife. Animals use the mesquite as shelter, habitat and food. In the late summer and fall, mesquite beans make up as much as 80 percent of the coyote's diet!  The bean pods also can serve as fodder for livestock when the grasses are inadequate.

Maintenance, Problems and Treatments

Though mesquite trees in Arizona do not wish much maintenance, the specimens growing around our homes could benefit from a exiguous extra care while unusually hot summers or times of extended drought. Sun-scorch is one of the very few problems that can plague mesquite trees planted as part of landscaping, though they are not as susceptible to this as are citrus and other fruit trees in Arizona. Infrequent but deep watering and occasional fertilizing will help ensure that the mesquites around our homes do not suffer a decline of condition and beauty.

During years when Arizona receives plentiful rainfall, mesquite trees do not need extra watering. However, in times of drought, the leaves will become sparse and allow more sunlight through to the branches. This is exacerbated by the need in the city to keep mesquite trees thinned out to survive storms and heavy winds, so as not to cause damage to homes and other structures. If the bark is exposed to too much intense sun, sun-scorch may occur, especially where the sunlight is most direct (i.e. On the top of horizontal branches at midday). Sun-scorch causes permanent damage to the cambium, or the sapwood layer underneath the bark. The cracked bark and dead tissues resulting from severe sun-scorch can lead to secondary infections and infestations, such as bark beetles and a fungus called 'sooty canker'.

Sun-scorch on mesquite trees in Arizona can be prevented but not undone. Reflective paint on the most vulnerable branches will minimize a mesquite tree's chances of being sun-damaged. Branches already affected should be removed back to a branch with healthy tissues. The best way to preclude sun-scorch is to encourage leafy increase to protect the tree during the hotter part of the year by some watering and by light fertilizing. Give the mesquite trees ammonium sulfate once in the springtime. Unless already fed by drippers or sprinklers (whether in your own or in a neighboring yard), water them deeply every two months from early spring to early fall. If the monsoons bring sufficient water, skip deep-watering while this period.

A mesquite tree that is planted in someone's yard may not be as hardy as the volunteer trees growing wild in the desert. Most likely, a nursery-grown mesquite tree planted for landscaping purposes has spent some time in a pot. The more time any tree spends in a pot, the more likely it is to become root-bound. An impaired root law makes for a mesquite tree that not only struggles to receive what exiguous water they need to thrive, but also is more prone to falling over because their 'anchoring' is not as sturdy. John Begeman says, "Try as you may, it is impossible to get a wobbly tree to anchor in the ground. By putting up stronger stakes and wires, righting the tree when it falls over, [...] you are just prolonging the inevitable. [...] The best thing to do with an unstable tree is to get rid of it and start over with a healthy specimen." Please refer to his description entitled take off Wobbly Mesquite Trees [http://ag.arizona.edu/gardening/news/articles/17.29.html] for more information on the subject.

If nothing else, I hope that this description on mesquite trees in Arizona increases some Arizonans' appreciation for this native plant as something that undeniably belongs in this desert we call home.

"Primroses burn their yellow fires

Where grass and roadway meet;

Feathered and tasseled like a queen,

Is every old mesquite."

-J. Frank Dobie

Bibliography

Begeman, John. "Remove Wobbly Mesquite Trees." Arid-Southwestern Gardening Information. Sep 2003.

Begeman, John. "Sun-Scorched Mesquite and Palo Verde." Arid-Southwestern Gardening Information. Mar 2000.

Clayton, Robin N. "Velvet Mesquite Tree." Arizona Highways.

Dobie, Frank J. "The Mesquite." Arizona Highways. Nov 1941.

Lometa. "Mesquite (Thing)." Everything2. Aug 2002.

Shalau, Jeff. "Respect the Mesquite Tree." Backyard Gardener. Jan 2007.

Sharp, Jay W. "The Mesquite: Something that Belongs." DesertUsa.

Mesquite Trees in ArizonaGreening America's Cities: Part I Tube. Duration : 94.48 Mins.


A White House Policy Briefing on ideas and initiatives to green America's cities. January 18, 2011.

Keywords: green, clean energy, environment, environmental, energy, sustainability, cities, urban

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