It is said that after the Tohono O’odham god I’itoi created people, he gave them all the edible plants of the desert and taught them how to prepare each one.
The mesquite pod may have been among I’itoi’s greatest gifts.
With double the protein found in native varieties of corn, the foodsource played an important role in Tohono O’odham survival. The nation ground the pods into cakes that kept well during lean times and even bolstered its supply of mesquite flour and beans sometimes by bartering for them with Pima Indians.
Other native people relied greatly on the mesquite as well. According to the Desert Harvesters Web site, www.desertharvesters.org, the tree’s pitch was made into black paint, the wood became harpoon shafts, and the bark, after some rubbing and pounding, made absorbent material for baby diapers.
The pods, when chewed, served as a primitive candy bar of the desert. And the mesquite groves, themselves, pointed people to good sources of ground water.
Mesquites were so important, in fact, that the Pima Indians named two months in their calendar for their life cycle, according to the book “Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert” by Wendy Hodgson. The months are “mesquite leaves moon” and “mesquite flowers moon.” The Pima also recognized five stages of the plant’s life cycle — from its leafing-out state to the time when its fruits are ready for havest.
In some tribes, people claimed harvesting rights for particular mesquite trees, according to “50 Common Edible and Useful Plants of the Southwest” by David Yetman, a book published through the Western National Parks Association that comes out in September.
In some places, native people laid a bundle of arrow weeds on a tree to stake their claim to it. In others, the people harvested wherever they could find pods.
Sometimes, the pods were made into sweet tea. Sometimes people sucked the sweet liquid from handfuls of water-soaked meal and spit out the fibers.
The Pima Indians made cakes by placing a cloth in a basket and adding dry meal sprinkled with water until it was the size of a loaf, according to “Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.” The White Mountain Apaches made a hole in the center of similar cakes and strung them on a cord.
The mesquite cakes traveled well but came with some challenges.For one thing, the traveler needed a stone to break off a piece. For another, eating too much brought on a laxative effect.