Thursday, June 30, 2011

Mesquite natural history and bean pod harvest

A Sonoran Desert Mesquite Bosque made up of Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutina).
Starting towards the end of June and through mid-August or so, Mesquite (Prosopis sp.) bean pods are ripe for harvesting in and around the Sonoran Desert.  Once the pods are tan colored and dry they are ripe.  The pods have two parts; the seed portion and the pod.  Both can be edible.  The seed portion is a bean which is as hard as a rock. By itself it is not digestible unless it is ground up.  The pod part is edible and has an earthy sweet taste.  All kinds of desert animals such as deer, cows, javelina, rats, and others consume the bean pod along with the bean.  The pod provides nutrition for the animal but the bean passes unharmed through the animal.  As the bean is passing through the digestive tract is absorbs moisture, may be partially scarified, and is finally deposited in a warm moist pile of dung.  All of this can greatly aid seed germination and survival of the seedling.  Animals also provide the extra bonus of carrying the seeds to new locations as they pass through the digestive tracts.

Velvet Mesquite bean pods ripe for harvesting mid-June in the Sonoran Desert.
While none of this is pretty, it is pretty darn effective.  In the absence of fire and/or other biological controls that scientists don't exactly understand, this method of seed transportation and deposition has at least partially caused the spread of mesquite trees all over the southwest.  Mesquites were once widely interspersed in desert grasslands and limited to wet areas where they would form dense "forests" called bosques.  In the present day they have invaded desert grasslands, often forming nearly impenetrable thickets.  Once these thickets are established, only fire, herbicides, or mechanical removal of them can return the grassland to an open state.  These treatments, particularly fire, are most effective before the mesquites become too large.  It is extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible, to remove an established mesquite thicket.

When the pods are dry and tan they are also ready for people to harvest them for eating.  The whole process can be quite easy for someone willing to brave the heat.  Simply find a tree with tan dry pods and pull them off the tree.  Some trees will produce sweeter tasting pods then others.  Simply break some pods and chew on them to see if you like the taste or not.  Collect pods from trees that taste favorable to you.  Mesquite pod collecting is legal on certain public lands such as Forest Service and BLM lands but not on National Park or preserve lands.  Private land is legal if you have permission.  Make sure you know where you are and the legality of collecting at that location.

Once you have collected all the pods you want, take them home and dry them out in the oven.  Set the oven as low as possible, 150 degrees is a good temperature.  Simply bake the pods until they are perfectly dry.  This is essential, the bean pod must be absolutely dried to the point where they can be very crisply broken.  If they are not crispy dry, the pods will gum-up and clog whatever you choose to grind them up with.  Also, drying the pods in the oven kills the often abundant insect life that likes to feed on them.  You can eat these bugs for the added protein, but I prefer not to, and don't suggest you do...  Next, you must grind-up the whole pods somehow.  Either a blender or coffee grinder will work well.  Simply place the pods in the blender or grinder and turn it on.  This should yield a powder mixed with pulp.  Lastly, the pulp and flour must be separated out from one another by using a mesh sieve.  The pulp, which will contain seeds if you used a blender, cannot be eaten.  Coffee grinders grind-up the beans making them edible.  The flour that comes through the sieve can be eaten.
Mesquite flour
Mesquite flour has an earthy-honey-desert-like taste and is great to add into bread, cornbread, and pancakes.  You can take any recipe you already have and simply add a quarter to a half cup or so of mesquite flour.  It also is great as a meat seasoning.  The flour can be rather dense and strong flavored so limit how much you add to your recipes.  Mesquite can also have a semi-bitter aftertaste, so limit how much you add to your recipes.  I especially like it in cornbread and as a meat seasoning.  Whatever you decide, play around with it and see what works and tastes best.  And let me know how it all works out for you!

Below are two websites with many good mesquite recipes:

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