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Is it spring? Not quite yet, mesquites tell us
by Karen Benson
Mar 24, 2014 | 45 views | 0 0 comments | 0 0 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Robert Benson photo

These old mesquites “ain’t” out yet. The calendar says spring arrived on March 20, but the mesquite trees do not agree.
Robert Benson photo These old mesquites “ain’t” out yet. The calendar says spring arrived on March 20, but the mesquite trees do not agree.
slideshow
Robert Benson photo

Mesquites will soon produce their new green leaves. The leaves of this tree are distinctive. Each leaf is divided into two feathery halves lined with six to 20 pairs of leaflets.
Robert Benson photo Mesquites will soon produce their new green leaves. The leaves of this tree are distinctive. Each leaf is divided into two feathery halves lined with six to 20 pairs of leaflets.
slideshow
It looks like spring, doesn’t it? The hackberry trees have turned a lovely shade of “spring green,” and the wildflowers are starting to show. And the last cold front didn’t seem all that cold. Forty degrees at dawn soon warmed up to a pleasant 70 degrees in the sunlight.

But is it spring? The old-timers tell us, “No, not quite yet!” We ask, “How can you be sure?”

They point to the old mesquite trees around us. These trees are still leafless, with no sign of new green. The old adage is that it isn’t spring until the mesquite trees bud out.

This bit of folk wisdom was captured in a poem by Frank Grimes in 1939. Mr. Grimes was the editor of the Abilene Reporter-News at the time (and remained so for 40 years). His poem has been reprinted nearly every spring by the Abilene newspaper. Here it is again for us in South Texas to reflect upon:

“The Old Mesquites Ain’t Out”

We see some signs of returning spring —

The redbird’s back and the fie’larks sing.

The ground’s plowed up and the creeks run clear.

The onions sprout and the rosebud’s near;

And yet they’s a point worth thinkin’ about —

We note that the old mesquites ain’t out!

The fancier trees are in full bloom.

The grass is green and the willows bloom.

The colts kick up and the calves bend down.

And spring’s a-pear-ently come to town;

And yet they’s a point worth thinkin’ about —

We note that the old mesquites ain’t out!

Well, it may be spring for all we know —

There ain’t no ice, and there ain’t no snow.

It looks like spring, and it smells so, too —

And still they’s a point worth thinkin’ about —

We note that the old mesquites ain’t out!

What would we do without our special Texas tree? Not only do they portend the change of seasons, they are nice to look at. The mesquite is quite striking in form, even when bare of leaves. Its limbs droop, and the crooked trunk leans, producing a tree that is often wider than it is tall. A Texas landscape without a mesquite just doesn’t look like Texas.

Soon even the old mesquites will be sending out slender slivers of green. Each sprout will open up into a two-branched, feathery leaf. Each branch bears 6 to 20 pairs of the inch-long leaflets.

Right behind the new leaves are the flowers. A mesquite blossom is a yellowish-white strand of tiny flowers. The 2- to 3-inch long cylinder of flowers provides very good bee food and results in a tasty honey. The nectar is also used by several species of butterflies.

The mesquite fruit is a bean pod about 4 to 10 inches long. The pod is quite fleshy and is in itself a good food source. Mesquite bean pods have long been an important fodder for cattle, horses, goats and even humans. Native Americans ate both the pods and the bean seeds inside, grinding the latter into a flour to make bread. Pioneers found they could make a sweet jelly from the pods.

It was as an animal food that mesquite beans had their greatest impact on Texas. Mexican teamsters used oxen to pull heavy, two-wheeled, wooden carts bearing goods into early Texas. The hard-working oxen couldn’t get enough nutrition from simply grazing after their day was done. The cart-drivers brought along bags of protein-rich mesquite beans, still in their pods, to feed them.

Some of the hard-coated mesquite bean seeds passed right through the digestive tracts of the livestock. The seeds were deposited (with a ready pile of manure to fertilize them) in new areas. Many historians have concluded this was the reason for the current widespread distribution of the mesquite tree.

The mesquite is also an extremely important tree for wildlife. Deer browse on its leaves, and the beans are eaten by many mammals, including deer, javelinas, coyotes and rodents. These mammals also feed on the seeds, as do many birds including quail and doves. The trees themselves provide roosting and nesting areas for a variety of birds. A single mesquite in an open area can create a nursery ground for other plants that grow up under its sheltering limbs. This little motte of brush provides habitat for dozens of species.

One reason the mesquite is such a valuable plant is because it is a legume. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air into the soil. Nitrogen in the air is in a stable compound of two nitrogen atoms. But plants cannot absorb nitrogen in this form. The nitrogen must be “fixed” by recombining it with atoms of hydrogen and/or oxygen. These new compounds can be absorbed by the roots of the legume.

Why is nitrogen such an important nutrient? All living things need nitrogen to produce proteins. Proteins are the basic building blocks of all living cells. The first step to getting proteins into the food chain is for a green plant to absorb nitrogenous compounds from the soil. It is a great benefit to be able to make your own nitrogenous compounds from “thin air” as leguminous plants can.

Spring officially arrives on March 20th this year. But the old mesquites may not yet be out on that day. Let’s take a lesson from the mesquites and be cautious in pronouncing spring’s arrival. We may yet have another cold front!
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