The Long, Deep Roots of Mojave Desert Mesquites
Look more closely at our native trees, and you'll see nourishment in all its forms
A mesquite tree sprawls wildly in the center of my backyard — triple the size it was when we moved in three years ago. Its unruly limbs seem to grow overnight, stretching to sway in strong desert winds. The year we bought our house, there had been zero inches of rainfall for 240 straight days, and the drip system had been off just as long. During those dry months, the mesquite was quietly sending its long, persistent roots in search of hidden water.
One summer afternoon last year, my kids and I cleaned up thousands of the mesquite’s seedpods that radiated from the center of the trunk in a creamy blanket. Lush branches formed a canopy of reprieve from the relentless summer heat. When my son asked if we could eat the pods, I assured him that if he could wait, I would do some research. Mesquites are everywhere here. They line our walking paths, shade our favorite park benches, and decorate the city. As a phreatophyte, a plant that has evolved to thrive despite long dry periods, mesquites can go months without water. Their roots defy drought, twisting and extending up to 200 feet below ground. They provide shade, fast-growing fuel, sturdy wood, and nutritious food.
Our yard, adjacent to Sunset Park, lies in the middle of what used to be an ancient mesquite bosque. Bosques exist in the arid Southwest, near streams or rivers. Here in Las Vegas, water once moved invisibly under the sandy surface. It coursed for miles in vast groundwater causeways, like veins underneath skin, bubbling from springs and extending for miles, nourishing all kinds of desert flora and fauna. While the springs are now dry, mesquites are still here, and the one in my yard must have produced thousands of pods for a reason — certainly not to die wasted, inside a trash bag in my garage.
Early Virgin River Anasazi (Ancestral Puebloan), Patayan, and Southern Paiute lived in this area and ate foods from mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus, and other plants. The Southern Paiute still live here, practicing their traditional lifeways.
Some Las Vegas residents are educating other desert dwellers about the use of native plants. In a neighborhood off Charleston Boulevard, resident Victoria Flores works in her backyard community garden and front-yard food pantry. She is the founder of Solidarity Fridge, an Indigenous-led group that focuses on making healthy food more accessible and healing body and soul through connection with the land. Flores is Nahua Otomi, an Indigenous People of Mexico, and for her, growing and harvesting desert foods means reviving practices that colonization tried to destroy.
“Harvesting is a sacred and communal act in which we can localize and recreate the food systems that always nourished communities,” she says. “Mesquite and other native trees don’t just provide shade, landscaping, or food for animals; they feed people. In our garden, nothing goes to waste. We learn from each other and also from the plants.”
Doing similar work is Ian Ford-Terry, a horticulturist and paleoethnobotany graduate student at UNLV. Drawn to Las Vegas to play poker, Ford-Terry didn’t discover his interest in horticulture until he began working with incarcerated youth in gardening classes. Now, he works alongside Indigenous friends to create food sovereignty for regional Native tribes.
Ford-Terry’s interest is in reviving ancestral agriculture techniques to use plants that still exist in this landscape. Asked if he eats mesquite pods, he replied without skipping a beat: “Of course! I eat all kinds of wild foods, but mesquite pods are some of the best. They’re very nutritious, and you can just pick one off the stem.”
(Nevertheless, it turns out, my kids and I would need to throw away the mesquite pods we collected. They must be picked from the tree — never from the ground, because mold from heat and moisture can cause toxins to form on fallen pods.)
Ford-Terry works on permaculture designs suited for drought. For one project he’s growing three native plants: mesquite, agave, and Indian ricegrass, which, when planted together, enrich one another and provide a nutritious harvest.
“In our megadrought and rapid climate change, the multifunctional nature of these plants is culturally important and concretely beneficial,” Ford-Terry says. “Mesquite roots even host rhizobia that enrich the otherwise nitrogen-weak desert soil, thereby helping other plants nearby.”
The honey mesquite in my yard, or prosopis glandulosa, and its sisters, the velvet and screwbean mesquite, produce seed pods, but each is unique. The pods my kids and I picked up were creamy with purple brush strokes and about the length of my hand, but the velvet mesquite has larger, reddish black pods of velvet texture that stand out against the ground. The screwbean produces just what you would think: twisted legumes that look like curled ribbons strewn across the desert.
Desert Harvesters, a group in Tucson, Arizona, has a cookbook and nonprofit that aim to “ ... remind us of where we live and how to live with dignity and delectability.” They write that mesquite pods can be ground up whole, husk and all, after being picked straight from the tree and dried. You can make a low-glycemic, protein-rich, fiber-filled, gluten-free flour — a powerhouse wheat alternative with the potential to start a fast trend on socials, but it’s always been a staple food.
People used to grind up the pods and make small cakes or turn them into porridge they flavored with other ingredients such as saguaro and barrel cactus seeds. When the flour is cooked, it releases its nutty, cinnamon scent and heightens the pods’ sweetness. Calcium, magnesium, protein, fiber, iron, zinc, and the amino acid lysine are among mesquite flour’s benefits, and it can be used in recipes ranging from waffles to drinks.
In addition to providing sustainable food, these trees are also a part of a beautiful desert landscape, one that some people are trying to help the population fall in love with again.
Often, people plant magnolias or ivy in the desert, expressing a yearning for landscapes that are unnatural here. Joey Lynn Watt, Star Nursery’s ISA certified arborist, makes house calls to people’s yards to help them care better for their plants. She was born and raised here and has seen this city evolve from a small ’70s town into a massive suburbia.
“What we have here doesn’t please the eyes of newcomers,” Watt says. “We’ve planted and designed this city to satisfy desires for lush lawns, English gardens, and nostalgia for a climate that doesn’t exist here. Unlearning these habits is what we must do, and it’s urgent.”
She calls learning to adapt a “privilege,” adding that now’s the time to do it. “What we do can be generationally unforgivable, or life-giving,” Watt insists. “It can start small in our own yards.”