“The mesquite is God’s best thought in all this desertness. It grows in the open, is thorny, stocky, close grown, and iron rooted. —Mary Austin, 1903
Abe Sanchez and I accompanied Stan and Marta Rodriquez and Bonnie from the Santa Ysabel Reservation in San Diego County to gather the roots of God’s best thought, aka the thorny, iron-rooted mesquite tree. The mesquite has extremely deep taproot systems and expansive lateral roots for survival in arid regions. Mark Dimmitt from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum writes that the mesquite’s root system, in fact, is the deepest documented of any tree.
Mesquite trees are phreatophytes, or plants with a deep-roots extending down into the water table. According to botanist Bruce Pavlik, the honey mesquite is the most widespread phreatophytic tree of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the most ecologically important for its multitude of resources: Food. Fuel. Shelter. Tool. Weapon. Fiber. Medicine.
The mesquite is so indispensible that for some native people such as the Akimel O’odham, or Pima, two months of their traditional calendar honor the seasonal cycle of the mesquite: Mesquite Leafing-Out Moon and Mesquite Flowers Moon. The velvet mesquite was considered the Tree of Life for the Pima. Ethnobiologist Amadeo M. Rea writes at length about the mesquite’s importance in his monumental ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima titled At the Desert’s Green Edge.
Marta, Stan, Bonnie, and Abe dig up the pliable lateral roots from the mesquite trees growing in the wash of an intermittent stream. It’s a lot of work, although the ground is soft and sandy. It’s Abe’s first time gathering the mesquite roots.
As soon as the mesquite root is harvested, it needs to be bent into an elongated U-shape to use as the frame for a cradleboard. In the photo above, Bonnie holds her U-shaped mesquite root, using peeled mesquite bark strips to hold the U in place. In Precious Cargo, California Indian Cradle Baskets and Childbirth Traditions, Brian Bibby’s history of baby baskets in Native California, he writes that examples of Kumeyaay cradles are rare in museum collections. A Mojave cradle in Precious Cargo features the U-shaped, or hairpin-shaped frame, made from mesquite roots. Another cradle by Pai Pai/Kumeyaay Margarita Castro looks very much like Bonnie’s U-shaped mesquite root frame, although mesquite is not listed as one of the materials.
It’s late November and the wash is dry, exceptionally dry according to Bonnie and Stan. They find that the roots of some of the mesquite trees are unusable for their cradleboards because they’re inflexible and brittle rather than supple and pliable. We walk up the wash a considerable distance to find suitable mesquite trees to harvest roots. We’ve lost Abe and Marta, and Stan and Bonnie talk about the necessity to stay in tune with the subtle and not so subtle changes in their ecosystems in order to gather native plants successfully.
After returning home, I do some research about the changes in the water table have resulted in the demise of mesquite groves in our region. Mark Jorgensen, senior ecologist with the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, reports that the lack of water is killing several different desert plants, including the honey mesquite:
“A mesquite forest is showing what many of us consider very high levels of mortality, and some of these individual trees that are dying are hundreds of years old. Even though it has among the deepest roots of any plant in the world, going down 100 feet or more, this is a sign that the ground-water basin is declining faster than the trees can keep up with it.”
I find it difficult to contemplate the death of the “magnificent mesquite” (just ordered the book by that name by Ken Rogers through interlibrary loan), the tree of life used for edible, medicinal, material, and ceremonial purposes for centuries, a species so beautifully adapted to arid regions, seemingly so tough, so tenacious.
In 1941, western writer J. Frank Dobie wrote that for him, the mesquite, as lovely and graceful as any tree in the world, is itself a poem. According to George Sudworth in Forest Trees of the Pacific Slope , mesquite is the:
“most interesting and important tree of the arid Southwest, where through the phenomenal growth of its huge deep roots it defies drought conditions which kill other trees. Development of its enormous roots appears to be out of all proportion to the often insignificant stems above ground.”
But in 2009, Dobie and Sudworth’s revered mesquite tree-poems may not be tough enough to survive the relentless prose of golf courses, citrus groves, and housing developments competing for the desert’s most precious resources. Sadly for us and all our relations, those tree/poems may have difficulty surviving global climate changes.
O.K. So it’s time to rally and plant a few mesquite trees in the garden. I just ordered three from Moosa Creek Nursery in Valley Center, CA, but because they’re a wholesale California native plant nursery, I’m need to purchase the plants through one of their distributors. In my area, that’s Ed S., who runs a 4-acre native plant nursery in Fallbrook (famous as the Avocado Capital of the World and site of It’s a Wonderful Life / Frank Capra’s 1,100 acre ranch, but infamous as the former white supremacy stronghold for Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance). I’ll rendevouz with Ed tomorrow afternoon to pick up the 3 gallon containers of honey mesquites / Prosopsis glandulosa.
On the phone, Ed mentioned that he’d seen some honey mesquites growing in Temecula. I don’t think he’s referring to Texas Lil’s Mesquite Grill in Old Town, Temecula, or Duke’s Mesquite Broiler Restaurant. There’s a huge controversy, as there should be, about the deforestation of thousands of acres of mesquite trees in the Sonoran Desert to satisfy North America’s desire for mesquite-flavored meats, chicken and fish cooked with mesquite charcoal and mesquite wood chips. My Dad, who’s visiting me for the holidays, said he used to add mesquite chips to the grill to flavor his hamburgers.
According to some sustainably-minded foodies, adding mesquite pods to a grill will impart the same wonderful mesquite flavor and aroma as the charcoal and chips. In fact, the Southwest flavor will be sweeter and more intense, and the pods are a super-abundant, sustainable resource, unlike a deforested mesquite grove. So grill with the pods and you can help to conserve mesquite woodlands, preserve the deserts, and eat like a gourmand . . .
I also ordered 3 bladderpods / Cleome isomeris, another edible native plant, drought tolerant, fire retardant, wildlife friendly, sustainable, beautiful . . .