Mesquite, crucial to Indigenous diets for centuries, works miracles with water and needs no fertilizer. Why don’t we grow more of it?

Kelly Athena and Jackson Richards plucking mesquite in Tempe, Arizona. September 2020

Chris Malloy

In a Southwest that’s getting hotter and drier while its population steadily grows, ecologists and Indigenous food activists are increasingly touting mesquite’s potential as a widespread, sustainable drylands crop and food source.

Thirty yards from an auto shop in Tempe, Arizona, in desert air thick with humidity and the rumble of trucks on a nearby highway, Kelly Athena plucked a pod from one of numerous mesquite trees in the area and put it in her mouth. She chewed, stopped, let her saliva coat the pod. Then she loudly spit it out. “This tastes like a sweet, tart candy,” the self-described foraging educator said—the flavor can vary widely. She stepped away from the paved path of a park, laid a tarp under the tree, and started harvesting.

Pictured above, Jackson Richards (left) and Kelly Athena foraging mesquite in an urban Tempe, Arizona park.

Athena, who wore one blue glove and a gardener’s hat, moved in and gripped the young tree with both hands. She shook hard. Pods fell.

Athena and her husband, Jackson Richards, folded the tarp and moved to a 25-foot velvet mesquite. She chewed a pod. “It takes sucking on it for a minute or two to get the flavor,” she said. “Some can be nutty. Some can be so sweet, oh my god, they taste like brown sugar.” Chewing, she studied the tree’s hundreds of long, dangling pods: curly, dry, and ghostly yellow mottled with pink. The slender lengths festooning the dark, lithe boughs are the tree’s main food source. Most commonly, pods are ground to flour, either whole pods or select parts. 

Mesquite season would end on that early summer day, as it did for the Sonoran Desert’s ancient tribes, if the foreboding gusts rose into the first summer monsoon. Pods torn to the ground by wind and soaked by rain develop harmful aflatoxins, so monsoon season effectively ends mesquite foraging each year. Athena, a forager who also sells mesquite beans and flour, laid her tarp and started to take on the thin-boughed, feathery-leafed tree before the rains hit.

A young couple strolled down the park path. They noticed the mesquite tarps with confusion.

Sonoran Desert road with a 40-mile speed limit sign and street lamp. September 2020

A mesquite tree leans by a road on the way to Scottsdale, Arizona’s McDowell Mountains.

Chris Malloy

Many people who live on the millions of American acres where mesquite grows—from Southern California to western Kansas—see it as just another tree. Residents of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert in particular may not realize that mesquite was once their region’s most important food. Its seeds are about 35 percent protein. Its roots can tunnel 160 feet, deeper than any other tree, making for copious yields despite minimal water. 

This is the apex desert food that today’s suburbanites sweep from yards into trash bags, that pops unnoticed under car tires and browns like rock, while millions of people instead buy wheat flour trucked in from the Midwest, and sugar from distant beet, corn, and sugarcane fields. 

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Over the course of history, mesquite pods have been used to make flour, no-bake bread, the thick Mexican beverage atole, candy, syrup, even beer. Yet despite its versatility, nutritional potential, and adaptation to harsh desert conditions, mesquite hasn’t been as widely seen as a potential food source in recent centuries. Early ranchers in the West even tried to eradicate mesquite trees by fire, chemical, and clearing. 

Over the course of history, mesquite pods have been used to make flour, no-bake bread, the thick Mexican beverage atole, candy, syrup, even beer.

But in recent decades, Southwestern ecologists have become increasingly fascinated by mesquite’s potential as a widespread, sustainable drylands crop and food source. Some of them have released ambitious, forward-looking plans to make mesquite an ecologically sound pillar of regional food systems. Though conundrums loom—creating supply chains, changing consumer habits, and re-imagining farms—they believe mesquite has the potential to be a crop of the future.   

In a Southwest that is getting hotter and drier while its population steadily grows, one of the keys to smarter food systems may have been hiding in open-desert sight from the beginning. 

Creating biological miracles with water

Before the 19th century, before trading posts, mining jobs, and the employment opportunities of the New Deal and World War Two; before colonization and forced assimilation through mandatory re-education, Indigenous people of southern Arizona lived on mostly wild foods. This included scores of plants, none more vital than mesquite. Come spring, the Seri from the Gulf of California (present-day Sonora, Mexico) and the Tohono O’odham of southern Arizona picked pods and stored them in giant baskets on the roofs of houses. Sealed with mud, some held enough mesquite to feed a family of six for a year. Mesquite was once a vital staple to many diets.

“Our people have been using mesquite for a long time,” said Clifford Pablo, who manages the garden at Tohono O’odham Community College in Sells, Arizona. “For shade, for housing, for fencing, the leaves for different medicines. And the pods, everybody has been using that for a long time, eating it and staying healthy.” 

The same is true in eastern Arizona, where Twila Cassadore, an Apache foods activist, gathers pods for flour and tea. “Mesquite is a very good seasonal staple,” she said. “It endures in our environment.” She touts the low-water requirements and dietary benefits of mesquite. “You’ll see young people when they’re playing out there in the desert, and they’re just chewing them.” 

“Our people have been using mesquite for a long time. For shade, for housing, for fencing, the leaves for different medicines. And the pods, everybody has been using that for a long time, eating it and staying healthy.”

Today in central and southern Arizona, conventional agriculture often drains vital local resources, its practices disrupting the area’s natural ecosystem. Water is pumped in from remote rivers or depleting underground sources to supply monocultures of water-intensive crops like cotton and alfalfa. Tracts of open desert gleam viridescent with leafy row crops, making the landscape look like Iowa or Italy. Rather than treating desert like desert, farmers artificially transform it with water and energy that could be directed elsewhere or conserved.

“We are living in extraordinary times in the ease with which we deploy fossil fuel energy and transform Arizona into some other place to grow foods,” said Tim Crews, director of research and lead scientist of the ecology program at The Land Institute. “We literally use fossil fuels to turn Arizona into Northern California.” 

In pursuit of balance, experts say, arid-adapted plants like mesquite can help. “The amount of edible biomass year after year that you gain for the amount of water over a decade’s time, I don’t know any desert crop that beats mesquite in terms of productivity,” said ecologist Gary Nabhan, who harvests pods on his Borderlands ranch and wrote the book Mesquite: An Arboreal Love Affair. Nabhan, who has been imagining new systems for growing mesquite, keeps a hammermill for grinding pods into flour in his garage. 

Mesquite beans across dirt ground. September 2020.

Mesquite pods fallen in the shadow of a tree during the Sonoran Desert’s monsoon season.

Chris Malloy

Mesquite—low-water, drought-tolerant, a nitrogen fixer, source of carbon sequestration, and potential shortener of supply chains—may provide one solution to making food systems more sustainable in the places the tree grows. The solution looks to the past, embracing drylands rather than driving their transformation

Crucially, the tree works miracles with water. Mesquite can bear pods unirrigated in Yuma, Arizona, on three inches of rain a year. Its roots can reach deep into Arizona’s lowering water tables, meaning it doesn’t need irrigation drawn from aquifers, lakes, and rivers. It can prosper on urban streets with little more than stormwater runoff. It can tolerate saline water, important because year-after-year irrigation makes cropland saltier, threatening harvests (a phenomenon that has doomed entire civilizations). During drought, mesquite can tap into water other plants cannot reach. “Mesquite certainly makes more sense for that Southwest than growing alfalfa,” said Richard Felger, researcher with the University of Arizona Herbarium and longtime Sonoran ethnobotanist. “The water requirements are reduced by orders of magnitude.”  

Mesquite’s roots provide another forward-looking benefit. As a legume, mesquite fixes nitrogen, improving soil fertility and virtually erasing the need for fertilizers. 

“Mesquite has a very high energy return on investment,” said Crews. “You don’t need to fertilize it. You don’t need to add water. It pretty much grows itself.” 

“The problem is we don’t have a market.”

Theoretically, it makes sense to produce more mesquite in the Southwest—not to mention in the world’s other drylands. Mesquite grows in Africa, Asia, Australia, and in both Americas. In the United States, however, there are obstacles.

First, there is culinary familiarity. American consumers don’t know mesquite—its flavors and forms, its uses, or that bakers tend to blend it with other flour because of its subtle cinnamon spicing and lack of gluten. 

Second, due to undeveloped and unscaled supply chains, mesquite flour costs between $12 and $24 per pound. These prices are astronomical relative to fully scaled, subsidized commodity wheat flours, which can drop to $2 a pound at big retailers. A better yardstick might be a fellow gluten-free flour, like cassava flour, generally $5 to $13 a pound.

Then there is the challenge of developing these supply chains, with an eye to building scale and efficiencies, which eventually lowers prices. Building out supply chains, however, requires a market. And a competitive market requires someone to come in with a lowest price. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem.

Pile of Mesquite beans on a green tarp. September 2020

Newly harvested screwbean mesquite pods piled on a tarp.

Chris Malloy

Peter Felker, a scientist and former researcher in semi-arid forest resources with Texas A&M University, is a current partner in Casa de Mesquite, a mesquite flour producer and one the Southwest’s main purveyors. Felker has pondered this and similar problems for decades. He also catches flak for the location of his mesquite trees: Argentina.

“I’d like to see mesquite make it as a food crop,” he said. “To do that, I have to find the right place. Argentina is where the labor is cheap and the pods are sweet.” (Felker claims that mesquite grown in South America is superior in taste.)

With supply chains, farms, and sophisticated means of harvesting still undeveloped, Felker said producing mesquite in the Southwest just isn’t viable. In Argentina, Felker buys pods from landowners with native mesquite forests that are being steadily cut, sold, and shaped into furniture. He claims the only way to make harvesting pods viable anywhere—his lifelong dream—is mechanization, which his company has been developing. He envisions rows of mesquite trees spaced at 18-foot intervals, with 25 feet between rows, enough room for a tractor to rumble through and keep grass clipped, then sweep up fallen mesquite before the rainy season. “The problem is we don’t have a market,” he said. “If we get a market, mechanization will follow.”

“Mesquite, in terms of harvesting, as with other tree crops, it’s a little tricky and has a fairly high labor cost.”

Felker thinks the solution to the market-and-supply-chain problem is marketing and education about the crop’s manifold benefits: building a textured hunger for mesquite. 

On the wild foods side, Athena-style foraging doesn’t have the scaling potential that mesquite farming would. Foraged mesquite, like foraged mushrooms, is likely to remain pricier than any future intelligently farmed counterparts. With foraged foods, too, there are the added issues of food safety education, practicality for widespread use, and the inability to choose which types of mesquite to cultivate.

“Mesquite, in terms of harvesting, as with other tree crops, it’s a little tricky and has a fairly high labor cost,” said Tim Crews from The Land Institute. “You could lay out tarps under trees … and shake them some, but [the pods] don’t all ripen at the same time.” 

Reimagining lunch

At the 25-foot mesquite tree, Athena stretched up with a limber, cup-ended pole used by golfers to retrieve stuck balls. She nudged branches. Pods dropped. She and Richards moved down the park path. Now and then, planes from the nearby Phoenix airport would rip through the pollution-hazy desert sky.

Athena stopped at a leviathan velvet mesquite and laid her tarp. “I try to be gentle, like the wind,” she said.

In the Southwest, summer temperatures limit daytime foraging. Dozens of pods dropped through the soupy heat, already 95 degrees before noon. Athena hoped to gather quickly to maximize her narrow window.

Athena and other foragers tend to sell mesquite in flour form. She grinds flour at home in a mill, selling it locally at a farmers’ market and globally through the internet. She also sells to chefs. 

Athena uses mesquite flour to make pancakes and waffles, but uses whole pods or parts to make tea, juice, and syrup.

One local chef uses mesquite flour in pie crust and to thicken stocks. A downtown brewery adds mesquite to saison. In Metro Phoenix, you can taste mesquite in dinner rolls, cookies, and Mexican-style lattes. Enterprising home cooks have also adopted a vast array of uses. Eat Mesquite and More, a 2018 Sonoran wild foods cookbook by a Tucson-based group of foragers, contains mesquite-centric recipes for pancakes, waffles, scones, granola, focaccia, biscotti, tamales, tapenade, ice cream, chai, dry rub, and beer. At least 64 of its recipes call for mesquite.

Athena arrived at the day’s last tree, an 18-foot screwbean with spiraled pods that yield a coarse flour. Athena uses mesquite flour to make pancakes and waffles, but uses whole pods or parts to make tea, juice, and syrup. Ducking twisted branches, she laid her tarp over ground that hadn’t seen measurable rainfall in at least 100 days. With cicadas trilling in the July heat like buzz saws, Athena took one side of her tree. Her husband took the other. 

Soon, they finished their tree, their day, and their mesquite foraging season. Five pounds in about an hour. At a 65 percent yield, the haul would make just over three pounds of flour. Athena chuckled about people in her HOA, who complained about mesquite pods filling yards and clogging pool drains. “It’s not litter,” she said. “It’s lunch.” 

A mesquite-based economy

Some Southwestern ecologists want to normalize mesquite consumption for the general public. Felger noted the growing interest for mesquite foraging in Tucson, envisioning paid city employees combing mesquite trees the way sanitation workers make weekly garbage pickups. When Crews worked at Prescott College in Arizona, he taught a natural systems agriculture course that explored the idea of farms using desert-adapted plants like mesquite. Recently, more concrete visions have taken shape.   

With more than two dozen drylands thinkers and innovators joining as contributing authors or signatories, Nabhan and Tohono O’odham Community College adjunct professor Martha Ames Burgess edited a “Mesquite Manifesto.” Published in 2019, it proposes a “mesquite-based restoration economy” straddling the U.S.-Mexico border.

The communiqué asks border states to reconsider mesquite and collaborate to develop a mesquite-centered plan for a “just and environmentally rich” local economy. It posits that mesquite could become “the most cost-effective natural and cultural resource investment ever made in the future of arid America.” Among other initiatives, the manifesto calls for education about mesquite so locals have the knowledge to harvest from extant trees, and for land-grant universities to see mesquite anew, which might spur “agricultural engineers to develop more scale-appropriate milling equipment, cold storage protocols for mesquite flour, and rapid food-safety monitoring techniques.”

With the right education and technology, however developed, what might a mesquite farm look like? “They’re going to look like apple orchards or pecan orchards or anything else,” Felger said. “Only they’re not going to require nitrogen.” 

“It’s really time to think about de-addicting ourselves from growing conventional crops like they’re made for this environment.”

Today, some thinkers have looked past mainstream agriculture to progressive polyculture, perennial, and agroforestry solutions that include mesquite. These would key more fully into the tree’s environmental potential. 

A July 2020 paper dedicated to Felger, co-authored by Crews, and lead-authored by Nabhan, proposed new systems of low-input drylands agriculture built around native crops like mesquite. One model system would see desert legumes like mesquite rising above ground rows of cacti, perennials, and annuals, forming a polyculture. Mesquite crowns would provide relief from sun, heat, and “evaporative water loss.” Their deep roots would pull up water and nutrients for their leafy and needled neighbors. And as a perennial, mesquite wouldn’t require replanting each year. The system, the paper argues, would have more biodiversity, more carbon storage, less need for fertilizer.

So far, government response to the manifesto and paper has been muted, though it has received some press and interest from foundations. Nabhan said that fall’s presidential election is absorbing governmental attention, and that, depending on the result, some of the study’s ideas might be able to take root. “We’re plugging along,” he said. “I just don’t think we have a chance at some governmental action until some reimagined part of the Green New Deal gets going.”  

The study’s proposed systems are based on biomimicry—designs that emulate nature. This would require looking hard at one overlooked tree. If we want the Sonoran Desert and similar drylands to regain balance with the land and become truly sustainable, Nabhan said, “It’s really time to think about de-addicting ourselves from growing conventional crops like they’re made for this environment.”

Chris Malloy is a writer from the Northeast now based in the Southwest. For stories, he has gone foraging in the southern Rockies and Sonoran Desert, trailed a quest to brew ale overnight in a forest, roamed a feral mountain orchard with cider-making scientists, and gone hunting with Apaches. He covers mostly food, culture, agriculture, the environment, and innovation.