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Sweet Mesquite

Love it or hate it, mesquite is useful for everything from honey to barbecue.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Folklorist J. Frank Dobie once eloquently likened a mesquite's feathery branches to a lovely poem. So deep was his affection for the scrubby legume that he asked to have one planted at his grave.

Texas ranchers, on the other hand, have long despised the "noxious weed" that claims more than 52 million acres statewide. Bristled with thorns, mesquite trees – drought-tolerant and nearly impossible to eradicate – invade precious rangelands and drive out other vegetation.

Despite its rotten reputation, there's more to love than hate about honey mesquites (Prosopis glandulosa), found nearly everywhere in Texas but the pineywoods. Native Americans used all parts of the tree to make shelters, weapons, tools, medicines, foods, drinks and even clothes. In severe droughts, the mesquite's sweet beans sustained cattle as well as wildlife (the seeds can be spread via cow patties and other animals' droppings).

In the 1870s, entrepreneurs gathered and sold mesquite gum to eastern confectioners who made gumdrops. Today, beekeepers prize the nectar from fragrant mesquite blossoms, which produces a delicate honey. And who can resist a plate of mesquite-smoked barbecue?

Blocks of mesquite wood – chosen for its durability and stability – once paved downtown streets in San Antonio. Modern artisans craft furniture, flooring and other fine pieces from mesquite hardwood. (The Texas Mesquite Association hosts two annual art festivals.)

Looking ahead, mesquite could fuel vehicles. Researchers with the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station in Vernon are currently working to develop a mesquite-to-biofuel industry in North Texas.

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