Mesquite

Mesquite is best known for its use as a high-end lumber, however it also has a range of medicinal and nutritional uses.

Quick Facts
General Information
  • Common name(s)Mesquite, glandular mesquite, algarrobo, kiawe
  • Scientific nameProsopis pallida
  • Geographic distributionNorthern Mexico and Southern U.S.
  • Plant typeTree
  • Native regionAmericas
  • Main producer(s)United States of America
  • Main Economic UseTimber industry
Mesquite

Mesquite is native to Texas and grows freely in the desert where nothing else will grow. Archaeological evidence from sites around Texas and northern Mexico suggest that the mesquite plant has always been useful to humans as a fuel and food source. Native peoples used the plant in many ways; the pods were eaten as food and the hardwood was used for making tools and musical instruments, and as fuel. In addition, the plant was used medicinally. The first European mention of the Native American use of mesquite was in the early 16th century. During the Civil War, mesquite beans would become a substitute for coffee beans when food was scarce, and early freighters would use the beans to feed livestock when grasses failed.

Medicinal and Nutritional Information

Quick Facts (Medicinal and Nutritional Information)
  • Medicinal actionAntioxidant, Hypoglycemic, Hypotensive
  • Key constituentsphenols
  • Ways to useFood, Poultice, Ointment
  • Medicinal rating(1) Very minor uses
  • Safety rankingUse with caution

Health Benefits of Mesquite

Mesquite contains phenols, which are phytocompounds with antioxidant activity that may also have a positive effect on blood pressure and blood sugar levels. Mesquite has been shown to be an ACE and alpha-glucosidase inhibitor. In regard to nutrition, mesquite contains carbohydrates, dietary fiber, calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc.

Most of the medicinal applications of mesquite come from the gum that is extracted from the tree trunk. Mesquite is no longer seen as a medicinal plant, and some of its purported health benefits – such as treating headaches and flesh wounds – have been mostly abandoned by experts. However, traditionally mesquite has been used to treat:

  • Eye infections. The gum from the tree can be used as an eye wash to treat infection and irritation.

  • Gastrointestinal discomfort. Mesquite gum has been used to treat diarrhea, constipation, and other stomach ailments.

  • Skin ailments. A poultice made from mesquite gum can be used to treat sores, wounds, burns, chapped fingers and lips and sunburn.

How It Works

“Most of the medicinal applications of mesquite come from the gum that is extracted from the tree trunk.”

Mesquite's hypotensive and hypoglycemic properties are due to its phenol content. These phenols inhibit certain enzymes, which may in turn help lower blood pressure and blood sugar. Other benefits of mesquite are thanks to its nutritional value; in particular, its fiber content helps regulate the bowels and promotes smooth digestion.

How to Consume Mesquite

Main preparations: food and poultices

“Use the flour as an ingredient in foods.”

People looking to take advantage of the nutritional benefits of mesquite will find the easiest way is to use the flour as an ingredient in foods or purchase the honey.

Mesquite Side Effects

Mesquite doesn't have many side effects. However, it is not widely consumed so not many side effects are known. It is also not recommended to take mesquite in medicinal doses or for extended periods of time, since it's impact in higher concentrations is unknown.

Culinary Information

Grinding the pods into a flour was practiced by the Native Americans originally, and this is still done today. This flour can be used in many recipes, including being added to soups, gravies and sauces, casseroles, vegetable and meat dishes, and pie crusts. Mesquite blooms also yield a delicious honey, and the pods can be eaten raw.

Other Uses

For Fuel

Mesquite wood provides an excellent fuel, and is still used by rural communities. It is also used as windbreaks, shade, and animal fodder.

For Woodworking

Mesquite is used to make high-end furniture and other wooden products. It was also historically used by Native Americans to make musical instruments.

For Cooking

In the Southwest, mesquite charcoal is used in barbecues, as the smoke gives the food a distinct mesquite flavor.

Buying

Quick Facts (Buying)
  • Where to buyFarmers' markets, Specialized health stores

There are many carpentry workshops in parts of Mexico where products are made from mesquite. It is also possible to buy mesquite honey and flour from specialized food stores and markets. Pods are normally cooked or ground into flour, but they may also be eaten raw. However, care must be taken not to eat the seeds, as they are hard enough to break a tooth. Mesquite is not found as a supplement, and so the best way to benefit nutritionally from this plant is to eat the pods.

“It is also possible to buy mesquite honey and flour from specialized food stores and markets.”

Plant Biology

Classification

Mesquite, or Prosopis pallida, is a member of the Fabaceae family and belongs to the Prosopis genus. This genus contains 35 species, including P. pallida.

Mesquite can grow as a shrub, or a small or medium tree with bipinnately compound foliage. The mesquite itself can reach heights of 30 feet (10 m) and widths of 40 feet (12 m), with thorns that can be up to 2 inches (5 cm) long. In the spring, summer, and after rains, it is covered with fragrant white flowers, and the long bean pods are attractive and are a good source of food for humans and livestock.

Varieties and Subspecies of Mesquite

As the plant has not been domesticated, there are no recognized varieties or cultivars of P. pallida. However, thanks to the large area of distribution of the Prosopis genus, there are different closely-related, albeit distinct, species that have been known as "mesquite." Among the most common species are P. glandulosa (honey mesquite), P. pubescens (screwbean mesquite), and P. velutina (velvet mesquite). P. pallida is sometimes referred to as P. limensis or Acacia pallida, though P. pallida is the generally accepted classification.

Growing

Quick Facts (Growing)
  • Life cyclePerennial
  • Light requirementsFull sun
  • Growing habitatArid or desert regions

Mesquite is a perennial plant, and can grow in almost any soil that is not soggy. Seeds must be scarified and stratified before they are planted for germination. They are first sown ¼ inch (6.35 mm) deep in pots of peat moss and kept at an ambient temperature of 80° - 85° F (26.6° - 29.4° C). After the seedling has reached five inches (127 mm) tall, it is transplanted into ground with some organic matter added.

Mesquite is extremely heat and drought tolerant, and it is so good at drawing water from the water table that it often out-competes other plants. Even so, it should be irrigated frequently early on to promote a healthy root system. Like other members of the legume family, mesquite roots coexist with symbiotic bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soil. The plants bloom in spring, summer, and fall, and regular pruning will help them develop a strong branch and trunk structure.

Additional Information

Quick Facts (Additional Information)
  • Other usesFuel, Furniture/carpentry, Musical instruments

Historical Information

Historically the wood was used to make cordage, which was then attached to harpoons to spear large marine animals. Mesquite rope has also been used to tie reeds together for the purpose of making boats.

Economic Data

Mesquite is one of the most economically important plants in Mexico's arid and semi-arid areas. There is a major carpentry industry surrounding the wood, which creates many jobs in these areas and supports countless families. The wood is hard and durable and used to make furniture and crafts. The mesquite plant also has a niche in the health food industry, mainly with regards to the delicious honey and flour that are produced from this plant. In addition, many rural communities rely on mesquite, as the trunks burn well to produce fuel, and the plants also replenish nitrogen levels in previously unusable soil, making it fertile again.

Bibliography

  • USDA Plants Database, Classification for Kingdom Plantae Down to Genus Prosopis L.
  • Journal of Medicinal Food, Evaluation of antihyperglycemia and antihypertension potential of native Peruvian fruits using in vitro models, 2009
  • Germplasm Resources Information, Taxon: Prosopis pallida (Humb. & Bonpl. ex Willd.) Kunth
  • AoB Plants, Prosopis: a global assessment of the biogeography, benefits, impacts and management of one of the world's worst woody invasive plant taxa, 2014
  • Hawaiian Ecosystems at Risk, Prosopis pallida
  • Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, The Social and Ecological Importance of Mesquite in Guanajuato
  • Texas A&M Agrilife Extension, Mesquite, Honey Mesquite, Glandular Mesquite, Algaroba ; Texas Tree Planting Guide