There are a couple of unusual ones there among the regulars. Prickly pear jelly was pretty easy to figure out - you pick the fruits of the prickly pear cactus, juice 'em, and add sugar and the other stuff to make jelly. But mesquite jelly? We questioned the lady behind the table, who explained that the mesquite bean grows on a tree-like shrub with very long, sharp needles.
Are these trees responsible for the thorny sticks that have been littering the highway shoulder, trying to pop our bike tires?
Yep, they are. (Note: Other than the jelly photo, I didn't take the rest of these. The mesquites only have leaves in the summertime and produce their pods in the fall. These photos have been gleaned from the interwebs.)
A sample of the jam was enough to make me forget my tire anxiety and focus on the other qualities of the native mesquites. Yesterday, we visited a permaculture gardener in Alpine who makes a flour of the mesquite beans and uses it to sweeten breads. Sweeten? Yes; the beans, although they are incredibly hard, impart a sweet flavor and have been ground up and used for food by a long series of peoples inhabiting the southwest.
Mesquite trees and their pods have other uses. The pith (material between the beans and the pod) is also edible. Bees are attracted to the flowers and mesquite honey is a popular local food item as well. Of course, the wood of the mesquite tree is also used for barbecuing meats and imbuing it with a distinctively southwestern flavor.
But let's get back to the beans. They are, after all, 40% protein; by comparison, the pinto bean is about 5%. Native Americans used the powdered beans to treat everything from indigestion to internal bleeding. More practical for the cyclists' purposes, the bark is effective in treating sunburn and red ant bites.
Best of all, the trees grow pretty much everywhere throughout the southwest, don't need to be watered (unless in severe drought) and produce an abundant amount of pods. Not only do resourceful human desert dwellers delight in their pods, but desert animals also find sustenance from them, and there's plenty to go around.
Next time you're wandering in the southwest in the fall and see a long bean growing on a tree, pluck one and discover what mysteries and miracles it might contain.
|Mesquite pods growing on a tree.|
|A basket of harvested mesquite pods.|