I live in a land characterized by columnar cacti and leguminous trees. As we edge near the summer solstice, the legumes are having a field day. Mesquite, paloverde and ironwood trees drip with narrow pods, each pod bulges with seeds. Under the trees, a litter of crushed pods and seeds casts a circular cloak on the ground.
Across the seasons legumes offer sustenance to the critters of the desert. In the spring these trees glow with a profusion of blossoms. An average sized velvet mesquite tree is reported to produce 12 million flowers. Many species of bees and birds consume the nectar and pollen from the prodigious bloom. (60 species of bees visit mesquite flowers!) Insects drawn to the blossoms attract lizards and birds that also haunt the trees. After the flowers fall, the pods grow and nutritious seeds develop, providing a much needed bonanza for multitudes of mammals during a particularly trying time of year.
Legume seeds are rich in amino acids, proteins and nitrogen compounds, nutrients vital to mammalian life. The seed of a velvet mesquite tree is 35% protein. Coyotes gobble down the entire pod with seeds included. Javelina, rock squirrels, pocket mice and antelope squirrels all feast on legume seeds and pods.
Native legume trees grow on the banks of washes, allowing monsoon storms to play a part in the dispersal of their nutrients. When the torrents pour from the sky, seeds and empty pods twist downstream in a roiling rush of water and debris. Seeds entrench and pods add nitrogen to the soils along the drainages.
I see the leguminous trees as stewards of the desert, presiding over and providing for precious life. In my neighborhood, folks sweep seed pods from beneath their native trees early on garbage day. “What a mess,” one gentleman tells me.
An alternative is provided by Desert Harvesters in Tucson. Bring up to 15 gallons of mesquite pods to be ground to tasty nutritious flour at a price of $2 per gallon.
Most people don’t realize Foothills paloverde and mesquite pods are edible and a gluten free source of complex carbohydrates, roughage and protein. If you decide to try one, pick a pod off the tree rather than the ground. Paloverde pods are tender while still green, and mesquite pods are best harvested when it’s still very dry out.