From tree to table
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, The screwbean mesquite is one of three common mesquites native to Southern Arizona that bear good pods for milling. The other two are velvet mesquites and honey mesquites.

It’s that time of year again.

The mesquite trees are sagging from the weight of their pods, and great bunches have already fallen to the desert floor, cluttering it the way autumn leaves do in New England.

It’s harvest time.

For ages, Native Americans in the Sonoran Desert have gathered the pods to make cakes, tea and a protein-rich gruel. In harsh years when crops failed, it kept them alive.

Now some modern desert dwellers carry on the tradition, using the abundant legume to season more sophisticated dishes — focaccia, for example, and baklava.

Mesquite milling events in Southern Arizona bring out about 3,000 people, according to estimates from the Community Food Bank. And you don’t need to own a mesquite tree to participate.

“If you talk to some ranchers and ask to pick up some mesquite pods, they’re probably not going to care,” said Russ Buhrow, the curator of plants at Tohono Chul Park. “There are lots of them in town in people’s yards, and I’m sure the owners would be happy to have them picked up.”

The Marana Farm at Heritage River Park is offering pod-harvesting instruction to anyone who shows up on a Friday between 7 a.m. and noon through Aug. 15 requesting it. This is in preparation for the farm’s first milling event, which will take place in the fall, after the pods have a good chance to dry.

But you don’t need intensive   tutelage to participate in a pod-harvesting tradition that reaches far back into the desert’s history. You just need a few tips.

The first one, according to Buhrow, is to find a tree with sweet pods. You do that by snapping pods in half and chewing on them.

The native mesquites — velvet, screwbean and honey — are good for milling, in contrast with the Chilean hybrids, which were brought here “because they’re spineless, and nobody wants a tree in their yard that is going to poke them,” according to Jo Falls, who teaches people how to cook desert foods at Tohono Chul Park.

But no two trees are alike, so the taste test matters.

“If you want it to taste good, get it from a tree that tastes good,” Buhrow said. “Ones that taste good are going to taste good every year.”

A good harvesting tree not only tastes sweet, it’s also free of pollutants. The Web site for the local organization Desert Harvesters,, warns against harvesting in places with high vehicle traffic (due to airborne pollutants), telephone poles (because they are treated with toxic wood preservants), polluted runoff and known or suspected pesticide or herbicide use. Animal droppings also should not come into contact with pods.

“I would not recommend doing it in city parks, because you don’t know if they’ve been sprayed,” Buhrow said. “You’re better going off in the desert somewhere.”

Traci Hamilton, an enthusiastic local pod harvester, said she gathers her pods from the Santa Cruz River wash at the base of “A” Mountain, because she feels confident no pesticides make it to that area.

Once you’ve identified a good tree for harvesting, you can start collecting the goods.

Ripe pods come off trees with practically no pulling and easily snap in half. Or Falls said you can lay out a tarp under the tree and shake the branches. Anything that lands on the tarp is ready for harvest.

Falls cautioned against collecting pods from the bare desert floor.

“Picking them off the ground is not recommended because if it rains, they could get moldy,” she said. “Or they could be exposed to herbicides and pollutants.”

Gathered pods can be swished in a pail of water and dried in the sun for several days. Some people take the additional step of ridding the pods of any pesky, but harmless, bugs. Putting them in the freezer for a couple of days helps rid the pods of any extra protein sources.

Other people welcome any larvae much like the Gila River Pima Indians who called them “mesquite pod babies.” The larvae eventually hatch and leave the pods through tiny holes.

“It’s just part of the deal that there’s bugs in them,” said Buhrow, who is in this second camp. “In lots of parts of the world, the bugs are the good stuff.”

When pods are dry, it’s time to store them outdoors in a rodent-proof spot in a clean garbage can, bucket or paper or cloth bag.

Community milling events take place in October and November, after the dew point has dropped so the pods don’t reabsorb monsoon moisture. An industrial-strength hammermill, owned by Desert Harvesters, will travel from site to site on a trailer bed.

Marana Farm is set to hold its first milling event this year at Heritage River Park on Saturday, Oct. 25. Times will be announced closer to the event at

Milling events

The Tucson area boasts a variety of events connected with mesquite pod harvesting, milling and eating. These are a few:

WHAT: Pod-harvesting instruction

WHEN: 7 a.m.-noon Fridays, July 25-Aug. 15

WHERE: Heritage River Park, corner of Gladden Farms Drive and Tangerine Farms Road

COST: Free

PHONE: 449-3154

WHAT: Tohono Chul Park’s Sonoran Sampler native food class

WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2

WHERE: Martha-Cooper Library, 1377 N. Catalina Ave.

COST: Free

PHONE: 742-6455

WHAT: Mesquite milling at Colossal Cave

WHEN: 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 5

WHERE: 16721 E. Old Spanish Trail

COST: $5 a carload for park entrance

PHONE: 647-7121

WHAT: Tucson Meet Yourself milling event

WHEN: noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11

WHERE: Joel D. Valdez Library, 101 N. Stone Ave.

COST: To be announced


WHAT: Heritage festival with milling event

WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 25, time to be announced

WHERE: Heritage River Park, corner of Gladden Farms Drive and Tangerine Farms Road

COST: To be announced


WHAT: Desert Harvesters Mesquite Milling Fiesta and Mesquite Pancake Breakfast

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6

WHERE: Dunbar/Spring Organic Community Garden, corner of 11th Avenue and University Boulevard

COST: $3 for up to three gallons of pods for milling, $1 a pancake


WHAT: Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market Mesquite Milling and Mesquite Pancake Fiesta

WHEN: 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20

WHERE: just off Speedway west of the Santa Cruz River

COST: To be announced

PHONE: 622-0525

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