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Marvelous, Maligned, and Misunderstood: The Strange History of the Mesquite Tree in Texas

From: Southwestern Historical Quarterly
Volume 117, Number 4, April 2014
pp. 346-370 | 10.1353/swh.2014.0038

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The plant Texans hate to love and love to hate. This image from c.1920–29 depicts the “Mesquite bush, native of the planes of south Texas, also Shaparell.” DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Lawrence T. Jones III Photography Collection, Ag2008.0005.

Standing on a hill in the drier parts of Texas, one invariably looks over a vast yellow-green swath composed almost entirely of the Southwest’s toughest tree: honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa). This native, spine-covered, deciduous plant cannot seem to decide whether to be a tree or a shrub, appearing first as a rapidly growing bush before maturing into a tree standing thirty feet tall.1

Texans themselves have been ambivalent about this indecisive plant, changing their attitudes toward it over the century and half of Anglo American occupation. On first encountering the mesquite, Anglo Texans struggled to comprehend it, but by the late nineteenth century they saw it as a symbol of a developing and maturing state with an untapped economic potential. However, as the species continued to spread it came to be regarded as a nuisance, and efforts to control it began in the 1920s and ’30s. Consuming rangeland and sucking valuable moisture from streams and aquifers, the plant came to be despised, and stories began to circulate of it being an invasive, foreign species. Ironically, the same Texans who reviled the plant inadvertently aided in the tremendous proliferation of the species across the region. After years of opprobrium, however, some Texans have risen in defense of the mesquite and its considerable virtues. The plant produces edible beans for livestock and people, potentially useful sap, desirable wood for furniture, and provides a rich flavor for the state’s famous barbeque. The species also features prominently in Texans’ interpretations of their state and themselves. The story of mesquite’s conquest of Texas illustrates how we change the environment around us, and how we, in turn, are changed by it. The mesquite, in short, is a plant Texans enthusiastically love to hate and but also hate to love.

Many people appear to believe that the mesquite made its way into the state in the bellies of early Spanish cattle brought from Mexico, or perhaps a bit later during the heyday of the great cattle drives. This belief endures, and even authoritative sources continue to claim that the mesquite was imported into the American Southwest. For example, Oklahoma State University’s Oklahoma Invasive Species Web site claims, “Mesquite were brought to Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in the 1800’s (1866) on cattle trains from Mexico.”2 To be sure, cattle proved an excellent vehicle of transmission, carrying the mesquite beans before depositing them in a ready-made patch of fertilizer, and indeed in the years following the Civil War cattle certainly aided in the rapid advance of mesquite onto open grasslands.3 Perhaps because of this diffusion, many Texans see the plant as an alien invader, but, in fact, mesquite has had a presence in the state for at least the last several thousand years, especially along the Rio Grande and along the Texas coast. One archaeological study of a cave near the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers found evidence of human consumption of mesquite flowers between 800 B.C. and 500 A.D. The evidence, preserved in human coprolite remains, suggested that native peoples habitually consumed the flowers of mesquite trees.4

The mesquite also appeared in the accounts of early Spanish explorers. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the first European to visit Texas after washing ashore as a survivor of the disastrous Pánfilo de Narváez expedition of 1527–28, encountered Indians subsisting on mesquite somewhere in South Texas. Local Indians gave Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors “much mesquite flour.” They processed this flour by placing the bitter mesquite beans in a shallow pit dug in the ground. Adding water and dirt, they pounded the beans into a paste. Then, according to Cabeza de Vaca, “they sit down there, and each one puts his hand in and takes what he can. . . And those who find themselves in this banquet, which for them...



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