Honey mesquite pods grow at the sacred Serrano site, Oasis of Mara, in Twentynine Palms, California (Photo by Robb Hannawacker, courtesy of Wikimedia)
By Pat Murkland
Mesquite grows all over — the Southwest, Mexico, east to Louisiana, north to Kansas, and of course, on Southern California Native American homelands. This thorny tree reveals how Native Americans in older times were accomplished horticulturists. Today, the ancient mesquite still tells the story of a traditional food’s superpowers in keeping people healthy.
Mesquite is rich in calcium, zinc, and other essential minerals, and,
It’s a diabetes fighter, helping lower and balance blood sugar. It may help with weight control. It’s anti-fungal, anti-microbial, and anti-spasmodic. It may fight anemia. It’s high in lysine, a building block for protein that may reduce anxiety, and can also promote wound healing. 2 Talk to your doctor if you think it may do some good to add mesquite to your decolonized diet.
Here’s a look at how this superfood fueled Indigenous people and kept them healthy in older times, and some ways that people are using mesquite foods today in their healthy diets.
Mesquite as a Staple in Traditional Diets
In Temalpakh, the iconic ethnobotany book on Cahuilla usage of plants, Lowell Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel report that mesquite once was a primary food source for the Cahuilla people living in the Colorado Desert.3 The flowers, green pods with their beans, and the mature, naturally dried pods with beans were available from trees that once spread for many miles in Cahuilla desert homelands along the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains, near present-day Torres-Martinez Reservation, Fish Springs, Thousand Palms, Palm Springs, and in Chino Canyon; in San Gorgonio Pass west into Banning; and in the Borrego Desert near Borrego Springs, and at the mouths of Coyote and Rockhouse canyons. 4 Archaeologists have found potsherds and other materials from the Cahuilla ownership, management, and use of former huge stands of mesquite that once grew near present-day Indian Wells.
The dominant varieties of mesquite, in Cahuilla, ily, or honey mesquite, and qwinyal, or screwbean, thrive in hot, dry places such as the Colorado Desert because their taproots sometimes reach down 100 feet or more to find water. That’s one tenacious tree. If you plant one today, it’s advised not to tempt the mesquite by planting it too close to your septic system or any water source.
Seasons of Mesquite
While we are often reminded that the acorn was a primary food for Native Americans in California, mesquite is sometimes overlooked. Yet mesquite was so important, Cahuilla ceremonial leader August Lomas of Martinez Reservation said in 1918, that the names of the seasons were based on the growth of mesquite:5
Bee on blossoms (Courtesy of National Park Service/Cece Claydon)
Taspa, budding of trees
Sevwa, blossoming of trees
Heva-wiva, commencing to form beans
Menukis-kwasva, ripening time of beans
Merukis-chaveva, falling of beans
Uche-wiva, cool days
Tamiva, cold days
Whether blossoms, pods, beans, or wood, every single part of the tree — even its sap— became food, fuel, shelter, tools, weapons, fibers, dyes, cosmetics, medicines, and more.
In the 1990s, Alice Kotzen reported how Malki Museum volunteers collected mesquite beans in sizzling July for one of the Malki’s early famed harvest gatherings. (Editor’s Note: Don’t miss the museum’s 2021 Fall Harvest event featuring food, cultural exhibits and demos starting at noon Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at the Malki Museum on Morongo Reservation.)
“The golden-colored honey mesquite is ripe throughout the Coachella Valley at the same time, drops its beans within a ten-day period and then the harvest is over,” Alice Kotzen reported. 6 “The pods are eaten by bugs and rodents immediately on reaching the ground so we have to pick them off the trees, but only when they are really ripe and ready.” Some people in older times apparently included bugs in the processing of the pods; others did not.
The mesquite trees offer evidence that in ancient times, Cahuilla and other Native American people were sophisticated gardeners. They pruned the mesquite trees and managed their growth. 7 Without management the bottom half of the trees get filled with dead branches and winds may even bury them in desert sands. Alice Kotzen explained it well: “In the early days, groves were owned by different Cahuilla groups and the trees were tended,” she wrote.
“The branches were trimmed in such a manner as to make harvesting simple, the low inside branches removed, so the women and children could go inside to pick the beans. No one takes care of the wild trees today, so picking beans off the thorny branches can be painful. Often the pods are too high to reach and most of the fruit falls inside a tangle of branches.”
Mesquite trees also provide cover for a host of desert animals and birds. Their nectar-filled blossoms attract bees and butterflies.
Elder Ernest Siva (Cahuilla-Serrano), president of Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, remembers growing up near mesquite trees. The word in Serrano for honey mesquite is 'eertt, according to Dorothy Ramon.8 In older times, Desert Cahuilla guests coming to the fall Serrano mourning ceremony at Morongo Reservation might bring mesquite cakes for the ceremony hosts. The Serrano might bring their acorn cakes or pinyon pine nuts to a Cahuilla ceremony.
In older times, people would pound the mesquite bean pods into powder using a mortar. In modern times, one can use a food processor. (The rock-hard seeds always should be removed in processing.) Please, though, don’t go out to pick mesquite pods in the wild and deplete the resource. The good news is that you can buy ready-made mesquite flour at health food stores. You also can try growing your own native mesquite.
At the Center’s recent Dragonfly Gala, Cynthia Rinehart donated bags of mesquite flour, thank you.
Mesquite is naturally sweet. Dorothy Ramon Learning Center has served mesquite candy, breads, and beverages at different events, and at one Dragonfly Gala silent auction, bidders waged an epic battle over Leslie Mouriquand’s delicious mesquite cookies.
The cover of the Chia Café Collective book features a photo of Abe Sanchez’s mesquite pancake with chia and sage.(Courtesy of Heyday).
The Chia Café Collective’s book, Cooking the Native Way, available through Heyday, offers recipes for mesquite tortillas, pancakes, crackers, and more. We thank the Chia Café Collective: Craig Torres, the late Daniel McCarthy (Dorothy Ramon Learning Center Dragonfly Award winner), Leslie Mouriquand, the late Barbara Drake (Dragonfly Award winner), Deborah Small, Lorene Sisquoc (Dragonfly Award winner), and Abe Sanchez.
Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living, Desert Harvesters cookbook is sold out but used copies can still be found online.
Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants; Southern California and Northern Baja California Indians, by Rose Ramirez (Dorothy Ramon Learning Center Dragonfly Award Winner) and Deborah Small, available through the Malki Museum, describes several contemporary Native American uses of mesquite and offers sources for mesquite flour. Thank you!
Do you have a mesquite story or recipe to share? Dorothy Ramon Learning Center’s 501(c)3 nonprofit mission to save and share Southern California Native American cultures, languages, history, and traditional arts. We love to hear from our community: EMAIL. Subscribe, share! (Subscribers: If you don’t see our newsletter every Wednesday in your email inbox, please check your marketing or promotions folders.) Thank you! Pat Murkland, Editor. October 20, 2021.
Ramirez, Rose and Deborah Small, Ethnobotany Project: Contemporary Uses of Native Plants; Southern California and Northern Baja California Indians; 2018, Malki Museum Press, pp. 80-86.
Mouriquand, Leslie, Oct. 12, 2009, Dragonfly Lecture at Dorothy Ramon Learning Center, Banning, California, “Integrating Traditional Plants into our Modern Lives.”
Bean, Lowell John, and Katherine Siva Saubel, 1972, Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants, Malki-Ballena Press, pp. 107-119.
Temalpakh, pp. 107-108
Hooper, Lucile, in Studies in Cahuilla Culture, A.L. Kroeber and Lucile Hooper, “The Cahuilla Indians” (reprint from Berkeley and Los Angeles, Calif. University of California, 1920, Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, v. 16) 1978, Malki Museum Press, p 362 (88).
Kotzen, Alice, Malki Museum’s Food-Tasting Experiences, 3rd edition, 1996, Malki Museum Press, pp. 14-15.
Temalpakh, pp. 107-119.
Ramon, Dorothy with Eric Elliott, Wayta’ Yawa’: Always Believe. Malki Museum Press, 2000, Morongo Reservation, California, reading no. 24.