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Mesquite

Mesquite

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Mesquite is the most common shrub/small tree of the desert southwest. Like many members of the legume family (called Fabaceae these days), mesquite restores nitrogen to the soil. There are 3 common species of mesquite: honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), screwbean mesquite (Prosopis pubescens ) and velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina).

They range from a few feet to 10 to 15 feet in height, although the honey and velvet mesquites may reach 30 to 60 feet in especially favorable settings. They may have single or multiple-branched stems, with each plant assuming its own distinctive shape. They come armed with thorns on the smaller branches. They shed their leaves in the winter. They bloom from spring into summer, bearing small frothy-looking clusters – called “catkins” – of tiny, five-petal, pale green or yellowish flowers, which lure numerous pollinating insects. They produce pods that contain hard and long-lasting seeds that must be scarified (cut or slit) before they will germinate. Mesquites have lateral roots that extend far beyond the canopies of the plants and taproots that penetrate well below the surface of the soil. Some mesquites may live for more than two centuries according to Thomas B. Wilson, Robert H. Webb and Thomas L. Thompson, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-8.

Most notably, mesquites’ root systems give the plants a competitive botanical edge in the desert landscape. As hosts to nitrogen-fixing bacteria, they help enrich otherwise impoverished desert soils in which the plants and their progeny grow. In lateral reach, they outcompete other plants in the battle for soil moisture. In their taproots’ downward reach, they find subsurface water, sometimes 150 to perhaps 200 feet below the surface. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Internet site, “The mesquite’s root system is the deepest documented; a live root was discovered in a copper mine over 160 feet (50 meters) below the surface.”

The Velvet Mesquite is the most common native mesquite tree in the Tucson/Phoenix area. It is the true local, native mesquite of southern Arizona. It can grow up to 30 feet tall and typically is a multi-trunked tree. It has a compound leaf and a long pod that can range from tan, with or without purple streaks, to dark purple. Young, new growth of the tree may have thorns. It has a trunk that is smooth when the tree is young and grows shaggy with age. While the trees prefer full sun, they are also cold-hardy to 5 degrees F. These trees are found in flood plains and along arroyos. The Velvet is our tree of choice for planting in and around Tucson and Phoenix. It has a long lifespan, is drought tolerant, and mature trees can have a 15-foot canopy.

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