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.
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.
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,…