Mesquite trees are thorny, short, shrub-like trees that have yellow or white flowers, feathery leaves, and seed pods. You’ll commonly see this type of tree grown in shrublands throughout Arizona, Texas, and other states in the southern US. Honey, velvet, and screwbean mesquite trees are the most common options you can get.
In several states, California and Texas included, these trees are a nuisance for homeowners or landowners. These shrubby, hardy trees come with a very expensive root system that can easily spread up to 200 feet. They’re also called “devil trees” or “trash trees” because the root system will absorb the nutrients and water to prevent other plants from growing anywhere near them in the hotter portion of the United States. However, these trees do fix nitrogen by increasing the nitrogen content in the soil to help make it more fertile.
We’re going to outline the most popular types of mesquite trees you can grow, facts about the shrubby tree, how their various parts look, and more below.
Facts About Mesquite Trees
Mesquite refers to several big deciduous shrubs or very small trees that fall into the Prosopis genus and the pea family called Fabaceae. The trees or shrubs can be anywhere from a few feet tall up to 50 feet tall. There are roughly 40 species of mesquite trees around, and seven of them are native to Northern Mexico, California, and Texas.
Due to the large spreading root system, mesquite trees are very tolerant of drought, and they can survive in low lighting conditions. You can find these trees growing in grasslands, deserts, on hillsides, or along streams. Because of the large root system and quick growth habit, sme areas consider this to be an invasive species.
If you have shallow soil, these plants will grow as multi-branched, low shrubs that will get roughly three feet high at full maturity. In an area with deep soil, mesquite trees will have a rounded or vase shape and grow between 30 and 50 feet high. The spreading canopy on this tree can get up to 40-feet across.
Mesquite trees will thrive in USDA planting zone 7 to 11 as long as they’re in well draining soil and a full sun location. The common name for this tree originates from the Aztecan word mizquitl. If you go to Mexico, these trees are called árbol de mesquite.
7 Types of Mesquite Trees
Although there are over 40 types of mesquite trees available, some are far more popular than others. We’re going to pick out the seven best-known mesquite trees for you to consider adding to your landscape below.
1. Black Mesquite Tree
The black mesquite tree is native to South America, and it has a slightly smaller stature than other trees. This leguminous tree is an evergreen variety that comes with a very neat, round-topped crown. They usually get around 30-feet high at full maturity, but they can get up to 52 feet high under the correct growing conditions.
Black mesquite or Prosopis nigra is native to South America. It is a leguminous tree that is relatively small in height. This is an evergreen variety of mesquite with a round-topped crown. Although black mesquite trees usually grow to an average height of four to 10 meters, some black mesquite trees have been known to reach a height of 16 meters.
This tree prefers to grow in an area that gets full, bright sunlight each day. They also like growing conditions with clayey or alkaline soil, and there should be moisture around the root level. This is a slightly slow-growing variety of tree. However, it’s a great choice if you want to plant a tree to give you shade during sunny, warm days in your yard.
2. Chilean Mesquite Trees
Anyone who wants to add visual interest to your landscape should look at this mesquite tree. This is a variety that doesn’t have any thorns, and you’ll find that it’s native to South America. No matter if you’re after a tree that you can plant in your rock garden, on your patio, or along your pathways, this is one of the best options you have available. They offer very dense foliage with a fern-like appearance that spreads out fairly wide, and you can easily use them as a living privacy screen in your garden.
This is a classic desert tree, and you’ll see bright green foliage that dots along the tree’s twisting branches to provide a nice contrast. They can make your landscape much more visually appealing. They grow relatively quickly, and they can reach 30 feet high with a dome-shaped and symmetrical canopy. This allows it to blend into formal landscapes without a problem. They can also blend well with native plants.
When you have the correct conditions and you fertilize the soil and irrigate it well, these trees can get up to 50-feet high. As a direct result of the quick growth, the branching strength can be compromised. The roots can also grow very aggressively, and this can easily damage any nearby concrete or asphalt.
Each leaf on this mesquite tree gets divided up into 40 leaflets, and each leaflet measures roughly an inch or ½ inch long. The trees come with a sinuous, dark gray trunk, and the semi-evergreen foliage gets retained during warmer winters. It sheds in the spring to give way for new buds. Later in the spring, greenish-yellow catkins show up. During the summer months, long, twisted seed pods get produced. Even though this is a thorn-less variety, some can produce thorns that are three inches long.
This mesquite tree likes areas that have full sunlight exposure. You may need to water them regularly when they’re growing and young. However, if you water them too frequently, the root system won’t go as deep as it should because it doesn’t need to spread out to reach a water source. As a result, a strong rain or wind can come along and topple the tree. Once the tree establishes itself, you should back off on watering. Pruning roughly 20% of the canopy of this tree will promote a deep-running root system too.
3. Honey Mesquite Trees
This mesquite tree is a medium-sized shrub that features thorns, and it’s a leguminous tree that is native to the desert regions of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. These trees do very well in dry and hot conditions, and they’re drought-resistant since they’re native to the desert region. What makes them very popular amongst the locals in these locations is they have ornamental twisting that leads to a picturesque appearance.
If you want summer shade and winter drama in your yard, this mesquite tree is the one to go with. The twisted trunks coupled with the yellow flowers will add a nice punch of visual interest and beauty to your landscape. These trees are also very rapid growers that can get up to three feet tall and 40-feet wide at full maturity. The taproots can plunge down into the soil up to an impressive 150 feet at the deepest points. The tap roots growing to this depth are why the tree resists drought.
The ornamental look of this tree is due to the yellow, pale flowers that start blooming early in the spring, and they also have more unusual seed pods. What makes the pods look unique is that they have a tubular, long appearance. The pods look a lot like wax beans, and they’ll get ripe during the late summer months. The bark on this tree is rough, scaly, and has a reddish-brown coloring. The trees come with large thorns that make them nice defensive hedges.
Honey mesquite trees grow best in planting zones 7 to 11. They are considered to be opportunist plants that will use whatever nutrients and water you have available. They can do well in drought conditions, but if you water them frequently, they can grow quicker. However, if you water them too frequently or too much, they will have compromised wood from growing so quickly. They like to grow in areas that receive full sun, and they’re not picky about the soil as long as it drains correctly.
You should prune these trees when they’re young to help train them to grow in the standard form on one trunk with a stronger branch system. You can also prune them when they mature to help elevate the canopy base and remove suckers or water sprouts. If you’re planning on propagating this tree using seeds, you have to soak any freshly-harvested seeds for 30 minutes in 95% sulfuric acid before rinsing them for 30 minutes in tepid water. Germination will take between 6 and 36 hours as long as the temperature of the soil is between 75 and 85°F.
4. Prosopis Juliflora
This type of mesquite tree is native to Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean. In Africa, Asia, and Australia, it’s considered to be invasive. This thorny evergreen tree has an open, large canopy with a flat-topped crown on it. In different countries, you will hear this mesquite tree called by many different names. In Spanish, it’s the bayahonda blanca, baryarone Francais in French, and bayarone in Creole.
This tree can get up to 40-feet high, and the trunk usually measures roughly four-feet in diameter on average. It has light green, deciduous leaves on it, and the flowers can be a greenish-yellow color. The flowers appear as soon as the leaves form, and the flowers have a long appearance to them. They show up in clusters of two to five. The seed pods are also long, and the seeds are viable for up to a decade.
This mesquite tree has some of the deepest roots out of any of these trees. They can go to an impressive 175 feet deep. So, these trees are very tolerant of hot climates and severe drought conditions.
5. Screwbean Mesquite Trees
The screwbean mesquite tree is a small shrub or tree that is in the pea family called Fabaceae. The tree is native to the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico. This tree has a number of other names associated with it, including the Screwpod Mesquite, American Screwbean, Fremont, Tornillo, Screwbean tree, or Twisted Bean. You’ll find this tree growing along streams, in deserts, or in valleys. The soil in these areas are usually saline or damp too.
These trees serve a very important function with the ecosystem, and birds and rodents love to eat the seed pods on this tree. Birds will nest in the branches frequently, and some mammals look for shelter under the trees. You can identify the screwbean mesquite tree because of the fun, screw-shaped beans they produce in clusters. The treen is shrubby, small, and comes with thorns.
They get an average of 23-feet high, and the bark has a very light brown coloring with short and straight spines. You’ll see compound leaves with a number of yellow, small flowers that grow in spikes. The seed pods are twisted to look like screws, and this is where the tree gets the name. They differ from the other mesquite varieties in several ways.
Compared to other mesquites, this one has smaller spines and leaves. The number of leaves you’ll see on each cluster is also less than other trees. The stems on the leaves feature a very dull gray coloring while others have a darker red stem. The most striking difference, as we touched on, is the seed pod shape.
This tree is relatively easy to grow. They love to be in areas that have full sun exposure with well-draining soil. You should prune them regularly to help keep the tree’s shape. If you skip the pruning sessions, this tree can easily have branches that sag down, and they may even reach the ground. This lends to an untidy look.
This popular tree has a very unique feature that sets it apart from other mesquites, and the seed pods are a very big draw due to how they look. 2018.04.19_07.25.56_DSC01071 by Andrey Zharkikh / CC BY 2.0
6. Velvet Mesquite Trees
This is one of the most common trees you’ll see in the North American’s southwestern desert regions. It’s a native to the Sonora, Mojave, and Chihuahua desserts. So, it’s safe to say that this tree does wonderfully in dry and hot climates. These trees have a very special importance to people, and they’re essential for any desert wildlife to thrive. Several mammals, birds, and insects feed on the tree’s beans and seek shelter under the canopy from the scorching sun. They’re a very valuable food source for native wildlife.
This is an open tree with very low-lying branches. The bark on this tree is virtually black in color; it’s so dark, and you’ll typically find these trees growing in the wild to form woods in the foothills surrounding Tucson in Arizona in the United States. They can get up to 25 feet tall with a canopy that will spread up to 35 feet. Also, velvet mesquite trees come with an asymmetrical shape with multiple trunks and a very wide crown.
This design makes these trees unsuitable to try and grow in areas with restricted space. They’re a very popular choice for open landscapes, and they’re a nice addition to any xeriscaping landscape. The flowers have a very pale greenish-yellow coloring and bloom during the late spring months. They start as tight clusters that eventually form spikes, and the seeds have a long look and ripen during the summer months.
The leaves on this tree are bi-pinnate, and they feature a greenish-gray coloring. The leaves act deciduous when the weather gets cold. Several stems on these trees will feature stout thorns that can get up to three inches long. The bark is a reddish-brown color on this mesquite tree, and they have a very smooth surface when the tree is young. As the tree gets older, the bark will get rough and change to a brownish-gray.
The trees are a winter deciduous variety, and this means that they’ll lose their leaves as the temperature drops. The root system will go very deep, and this is how the tree can hold onto their leaves during droughts in the summer. If you live in an area where the climate is warm for most of the year, the tree can keep the leaves until new leaves come in during the spring.
The roots can go up to 50 feet in the soil, so this is slightly more shallow than other trees. However the taproot can be as big as the tree’s trunk, and they come with a lateral root system that can spread well over the tree’s crown’s width. They can live up to 150 years under the correct growing conditions due to the deep and widespread root system, and how well they adapt to drought.
You can grow this tree in virtually any type of soil, including rocky and well-drained soil to native or fertile. If you want the trees to have an upright growth habit, you’ll need to stake them to support them. Once the trees establish themselves, they’ll need you to water them occasionally. If the soil is too soggy and moist, the roots can rot and the wood can start to decay. During the later summer months, you should get your tools and prune these trees to whatever shape you want. If you prune them in the spring, a huge growth surge can happen. If you want to keep the flowering buds for next season, you should prune them after the flowers bloom.
7. White Mesquite Tree
This is a South American native mesquite tree that is semi-deciduous and thorny. It’s a medium-sized tree that only gets between 15 and 45-feet high at full maturity, and it makes a nice hedge plant. The tree also comes with a shorter trunk, and they have a globular-shaped treetop that can get up to 33 feet wide. The bark has a brownish-gray coloring and is on the thinner side, and it will tan. The flowers are yellow or greenish-white, and they’re much smaller.
There are modified seed pods on this plant that come with brown-colored seeds. The seeds have a very sweet-tasting paste that has a flourly consistency. When you eat it like you would flour, it can give you an energy boost. Most people plant these trees for ornamental or utilitarian purposes along roadsides. The timber is very dense, and it’s popular to use for creating doors, floors, wine casks, furniture, shoe lasts, and paving blocks.
Mesquite Tree Anatomy
You should know the various parts of this tree so you can tell whether or not it’s healthy and thriving when you grow it. We’ve listed out the most obvious ones below. Mesquite by Matt Malone / CC BY-NC 2.0
The bark usually looks scaly and rough on this tree, and the most dominant color is a reddish-brown. Depending on the species, the bark can be so dark that it looks almost black, or it can be a much lighter brown. Young trees tend to offer light-colored, thin bark. The bark will get darker and fissured as the tree gets older. Due to the straight thorns this tree has, the bark can also look spiky.
The flowers are typically long and cylindrical with yellow or white spikes that are called catkins. They are very pale colored but fragrant flowers that will get between two and three inches long. They bloom from the early spring months until the middle of summer. You can get clusters of pale-yellow flowering spikes that will give the tree a huge boost in ornamental value.
It’s the fern-like, delicate leaves that define this type of tree. The feathery leaves on mesquite trees are compound pinnate and feature 20 to 50 small oblong leaflets that get arranged on the stem. They can grow sparsely on the tree and have a grayish-green or green coloring. The leaves are usually between 8 and 10-inches long at the most. The most common types of mesquite trees in Texas are the velvet and honey mesquite, and they feature bipinnate compound leaves.
When the weather turns cold, this tree will drop their leaves. However, if the weather stays warm all year round, the foliage will stay on the tree until the new leaves come in during the spring months. Only when the young leaves come in do the old start shedding.
Seed Pods (Mesquite Fruit)
The seed pods contain the fruit of the mesquite trees, and they’re usually elongated. When they mature, the reddish or yellow-brown seed pods will get between 10 and 12-inches long. They’re edible, and they ripen in July or August. You’ll get a sweet coating on them that makes them popular with wildlife and humans.
As we mentioned, the most unusual-looking pods grow on the screwbean tree. They look like a very tightly wound spring or screw. If you look at photos of other mesquite tree types, you’ll see slender and long seed pods.
These trees get characterized by the pointed, stiff, and sharp thorns. The spikes can get up to three-inches long at full maturity, and they’re both stout and strong. They can cause a lot of pain if you accidentally come into contact with them, and some people will have allergic reactions to them. The shrubby mesquites grow sharp, slender thorns, and this makes them perfect for planting in a defensive hedgerow.
Some trees are hybrids without any thorns. If you want to grow it right in your backyard, you should skip the thorned varieties. You can also prune the thorns off your younger trees so they don’t regrow as the tree matures.
The wood on your trees is very dense as a hardwood that has a darker brown coloring. It has a very intricate wood grain that lends ornamental value to the plants. The natural beauty and hardness make it great for making furniture, flooring, paneling, and fence posts. It’s also suitable as firewood, and you can use it to smoke your food to bring a unique flavor.
We’ve outlined 7 pretty mesquite trees you can consider adding to your open landscape design. They’re an eye-catching shrubby tree that can grow to impressive heights given the correct growing conditions, and they’re very hardy.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.