Texas Primer: Mesquite

The tree that made Texans tough.

If ever a plant held a grip on a place and the minds of its inhabitants it is mesquite. Half of Texas has lots of mesquite growing on it, and about the only place it won’t grow is in East Texas. Mesquite is a delicate, almost oriental-looking tree, never very tall, with a slender trunk and branches, a filigreed canopy of leaves, and cloudlike wisps of perfumy blossoms. But looks are deceiving—mesquite has an indomitable life urge. It sends down a forty-foot taproot as well as lateral roots that reach out fifteen to fifty feet around the base of the trunk. This system allows it to siphon water away from grasses and plants, helping it to survive in droughts when everything else withers. Mesquite has great stratagems for multiplying, too: It produces slender, gnarled pods, which contain many seeds, each snuggling in a tough coat. These pods taste good to livestock and wildlife, which eat them, digest the protective seed coats, and conveniently spread the seeds far and wide in the perfect medium for germination—their dung. And if conditions are bad, the seeds can lie dormant in their seed coats for as long as forty years. If the trees themselves are disturbed or plowed down, they sprout back in greater profusion.

It is a rule of terrain that folks become as rugged as the landscape, and when Texas rancher met mesquite he got tough. He developed a pragmatic but rather ruthless attitude toward the tree, which helps explain his less than benevolent feeling about nature in general. It’s hard to love what’s in the way, and when you’re trying to raise cattle, just about everything in the grass is in the way. Keep in mind that the rancher heaped a good bit of misery upon


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