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Mesquites, Friend Not Foe

Summer is in full swing at the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve. It has been a hot summer with less precipitation than the previous two monsoon seasons. Yet the preserve and the surrounding areas are still flush with green vegetation, thanks mainly to the abundance of mesquite trees. These sometimes understated native trees and keystone species quite literally hold the preserve together with their roots, providing shade to all during the heat, and nourishing the soil.

As these trees have become more abundant in our area (due to cattle grazing), some see them as invaders of the grasslands to be banished, but I prefer to see them as friends moving in to help us stay cool, nourished, and fed. Mesquite bosques (forests) provide habitat for an innumerable amount of species. Their flowers, called catkins, provide pollen and nectar for wildlife. Their fruits, called mesquite beans, have been a food source for Indigenous peoples and wildlife since time immemorial. Almost every animal you can think of depends on these trees for survival, from pocket mice to javelina to the yellow-billed cuckoo.

Mesquite flowers provide pollen and nectar for wildlife.
Mesquite flowers provide pollen and nectar for wildlife.

The largest of the mesquites is the velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina), reaching heights and widths of thirty feet or more. The leaves and stems are covered with soft hair-like structures called trichomes, giving it the name velvet for the feel they create. Like all mesquite trees, the velvet mesquite is a bee-pollinated legume that improves soil quality through beneficial relationships with nitrogen-fixing bacteria. When these bacteria die, the nitrogen in their bodies is released into the soil, fertilizing the area naturally.

Giant mesquite bugs.
Giant mesquite bugs.

With this information in mind, the next time you see a mesquite, take a moment to appreciate the many benefits of this tree. In a warming environment, a little shade goes a long way, and how we choose to view and manage this plant can make a difference in our mental and physical health. Being surrounded by friends sure feels better than being surrounded by foes, and removing thousands of mesquite trees to increase grassland is a task that may just cause more harm than good.

Borderlands Restoration Network grows hundreds of these trees for restoration contracts and has many available at Borderlands Nursery & Seed for sale to the public.

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