Like Dipping Water With a Sieve

Mesquite trees ~ Frio County, Texas

From 1845 to 1847,  German naturalist Dr. Ferdinand Roemer traveled across Texas observing, collecting, and detailing discoveries in a journal published in 1849, after his return to Germany.  The expansive title — Texas ~ with Particular Reference to German Immigration and the Flora, Fauna, Land, and Inhabitants — is justified, as Roemer was a curious, keen-eyed, and accurate observer.

After arriving in Galveston via steamship from New Orleans and traveling up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, Roemer departed for New Braunfels. Along the way, he stopped in Gonzales and Seguin, and spent time at the historic El Capote Ranch. Eventually, he explored the area around New Braunfels in the company of Ferdinand Lindheimer, another German who already had acquired some fame as a botanist; in time, Lindheimer would become known as the Father of Texas Botany.

During their time together, Roemer and Lindheimer followed the course of the Guadalupe River for several miles below New Braunfels.  Roemer’s description of the mesquite trees he encountered during that trip came to mind when I discovered a lovely stand of mesquite in ranch country south of Devine on May 9:

A natural prairie or meadow one-fourth mile wide extends between [the Guadalupe] and a gently rising chain of hills, on which mesquite trees (Pleopyrena glandulosa Engelmann) were scattered. These mesquite trees, which spread also over a great portion of northern Mexico, give to the prairie of Western Texas much of its peculiar character…
The trunk is gnarled and now and then bent, thus making it unfit for lumber. They seldom obtain a thickness of over one to one and one-half feet in Texas, nor a height of more than twenty to thirty feet…
The foliage resembles the so-called acacia, inasmuch as it is plumeous. The individual leaves, however, are much narrower and the whole foliage is more graceful and transparent.
To find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.


Comments always are welcome.
For an entertaining and informative article about mesquite trees in Texas, click here.
My copy of Roemer’s journal was published by Copano Bay Press, an independent Texas press dedicated to bringing back important works of Texas history.

45 thoughts on “Like Dipping Water With a Sieve

  1. Mesquite trees seem to be one of the most emblematic trees of the southwestern desert. I have spent happy hours in their company.

    1. When they begin to leaf out, they’re one of the prettiest greens in the world. When I moved to Texas, it did take me some time to understand that not all trees have good height and a single (or perhaps a double) trunk, but I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate them, despite their obvious downside for ranchers and others.

  2. That’s one for the wallpaper program. Love the fence against the green. I had no idea that mesquite got that big, but then ranchers consider them invasive (which they kind of are this far north) and take the bulldozer to them when they start crowding out the plants that cows can actually eat.

    1. Isn’t that fence nice? This scene edges some property in a tiny town that has its own entirely Texan story to tell, but that’s for another day. As for cattle, it seems they’re partly responsible for the spread of mesquite through pastures. Do you remember the tale of my squirrel who became inebriated after consuming fermented mesquite beans? I’ve since learned that the beans have such a high sugar content — about 30%, given or take — that they’re enormously attractive to cattle. Cows do eat the beans and then, at the other end of the digestive process, spread their seeds across the land.

  3. This brought to mind a book I’m currently reading (well, listening to the audiobook version, anyway), and perhaps one you might enjoy. It’s called The Overstory by Richard Powers. Apparently it won the Pulitzer Price in Fiction. I’m not familiar with the author and the “story” is a bit unusual in the telling. So far it seems almost a series of short stories or vignettes all bound together by the inclusion of topics of nature and the environment, most often trees of various species. Some of the sections I’ve really enjoyed and the quote above reminds of those. Others I’ve been less drawn to. I’m not sure yet if it they will all come together in some way. It’s a long book (500 pages) and I’m a little concerned I could grow bored of this at some point, but so far I’ve continued reading. I know that’s not a glowing recommendation, but a friend of mine thought it was fabulous and I can see some of why he did. Some sections are fantastic and a real tribute to the granduer of trees of various species.

    1. I looked at the book, and read a couple of reviews. It makes sense that a post about a tree would bring it to mind. It does seem to me that it’s a polemic disguised as a novel, which makes it a book I’d not pick up, but there’s no question that the relationship of humans with their various trees could be the basis for interesting and varied stories. There certainly are plenty of stories about our mesquites: some full of fondness, and some as bitter as can be.

      1. Some of the sections do have that feel, which is perhaps why they appeal less to me than others. Not sure yet what direction the book, itself, is taking. I’m open to giving it a chance but if it gets too tiring (or boring) I’ll drop it for the next book on the stack. Always plenty more books to try. :-) One observation I’ve had about fiction that in some ways attempts to teach about nature is that I often prefer instead finding a non-fiction book that teaches about nature. With the fiction book I just don’t know exactly which sections are based on fact and which are to further the narrative and I’m often too lazy to do the research to find out.

  4. The most ubiquitous tree in Texas, it is good for one thing…smoking brisket. I have the things all over my yard, and after mowing, my forearms look like a Sieve (some of the thorns are 2-3 inches long).

    1. Your mention of mowing reminds me of one of my favorite ‘new to Texas’ stories. A friend who lived between Kerrville and Medina grew impatient with the prickly pear overtaking his land. Always a problem solver, he decided the best thing to do was a little brush hogging. Within a year, he’d learned one important lesson about those cacti: even the smallest bit is capable of taking root and mocking the mowers of the world.

      As for smoking brisket, I always smile when I stop by our local grocery and see the bundles of mesquite wood stacked in front. Even urbanites know a thing or two about how to deal with briskets.

    1. Have you heard anything from her? I read that some near View have been allowed back home, but there’s been a good bit of damage. In a bit of terrible irony, the Abilene fire was named the ‘Mesquite Heat Fire.” The InciWeb update is looking pretty grim.

  5. I’ve never occasioned to find shade under a mesquite tree so I’m not sure about the colorful sieve description. I’m usually trying to avoid their thorns. And mesquite smoke is ubiquitous in Texas and Oklahoma grills.

    1. Some favor pecan and some prefer oak, but I agree: for smoking and grilling, mesquite is a perfect taste. I’m glad you know its pleasures! I don’t know but suspect that Roemer was more accustomed to shade trees like the ones I grew up with: maples, oaks, hickories and such that had much denser canopies. In any event, he chose a perfect metaphor for his experience of mesquite.

    1. I left that door unlocked and cracked, and you opened it right up. I’ve heard that his traveling companions liked to say, “When with Roemer, roam as Roemer does.”

      1. I thought about doing something with Rome and left that door for you to open. And true to linguistics, I have to confess that the oe in Roemer, alternately spelled Römer, represents not the vowel sound in English roe but rather a vowel sound English doesn’t have. For the sake of cross-language puns we assume our phonetic transgressions will be forgive.

  6. While living in West Texas, we were mighty thankful for the plumeous foliage of the mesquite trees. Even a bit of dappled shade is most welcome in the August heat.

    You are right about that marvelous shade of spring green. Nothing quite like it.

    Your photograph of the mesquite trees along the fence row is just perfect.

    1. Isn’t ‘plumeous’ a great word? I did a double-take on that one, but that was Roemer’s word, and a perfect one it was.

      It’s rather a shame that air conditioning has taken phrases like ‘shade tree mechanic’ out of our lexicon, and that fewer people experience the joys of shade these days. Even the birds appreciate it. On the docks, I enjoy watching the mallards who sit in the shadow of the pilings keep moving with the shade, and I’ve learned to look under the docks for alligators in full summer heat. They know how to cope!

      1. Plumeous is new to me and it’s a winner, I love it! Being a new word to me, I searched it and its also spelt plumeus but that appears to be the Latin, and plumeous in English just as you’ve used. One search result informed me that plumeous isn’t in the Scrabble dictionary, slightly confusing me but it’s hardly my goto source for information lol!

        1. Rather “just as Roemer used” .. I’d only read a little bit as I intended to return later so shouldn’t have written my comment quite so early!

    1. One of the things I enjoy about contemporary accounts are the marvelous details about places I know so well. I’ve stayed a few times in Gonzales, and laughed when I found this description from Roemer:

      “On the following morning we reached Gonzales, which resembles other so-called cities of West Texas. About thirty to forty poor, dilapidated frame houses and log cabins were scattered about on the level plain. Not far distant, a seam of forest extended along the rim of the Guadalupe bottom. The resources of the place seemed to be in keeping with its cheerless aspect. No sugar, coffee, or other necessities could be bought in the entire place — nothing but bad whiskey.”

      No coffee? Roemer would have loved the La Quinta!

  7. What a peaceful scene. I could see myself sitting under those mesquite trees in a lounge chair, with something cold to drink and a good book.

    1. It was peaceful there, no question. Had I not gone down the road to find the town it was situated in, I never would have come across the pretty scene. I can’t tell you the name of the town just now, lest I spoil a coming story, but it’s one you might enjoy reading under those very trees. (I’ll freshen up your tea whenever you like.)

  8. We’re happy – as we’re not farmers or ranchers – that quite a few are springing up in our “wildernis area”.

    1. They have a lot of benefits, despite their obvious downsides. I’d not thought about it, but of course, as a member of the pea family, they help to return nitrogen to the soil, and as slight as their shade can be, it is still shade!

    1. They’re frondy, feathery trees in spring. Like our huisache and palo verde, they stir the heart as much as cherry blossoms and such. Since they often begin leafing out after our earliest wildflowers, they help to extend a sense of spring for a few weeks.

  9. Who was that writer that would go looking for spring every year? He would travel south till he came across mesquite trees leading out and would report back that spring has made it as far as wherever he found the mesquite trees.

  10. The Germans used to travel a lot to the new world collecting biological samples, which they housed in different collections throughout Germany. There are quite a few very important German taxonomists from the period you mention, at least in Entomology.

    I like the last sentence “To find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.” No mesquites here, not even ornamentals, in my town.

    1. What you say about the entomologists was true of the botanists, too. As I began to learn the scientific names of our native plants, I discovered how many bear the names of those early explorers. One of the important links between American and German botanists and institutions was Asa Gray, for whom the Harvard Herbarium is named.

      One thing Gray was noted for was his study of the geographical distribution of plants; now I’m wondering if the mesquite was part of his studies.

  11. I love that fence, reminds me of railroad ties. We built a retainer wall with them once when the railroad was replacing and selling the old. Mesquite trees are sure different than what we have here in Michigan. Across the square from my apartment are trees that stand far taller than our three floor building.

    1. Those may well be railroad ties. I had the same thought when I looked at them. Southern Pacific has been replacing ties and repairing the roadbed in several areas I’ve passed through recently, and I’m sure some people have made use of the old ties that are ‘left-overs.’

      As attractive as I sometimes find mesquite, I’m glad that my own place has some of those nice, tall trees: in my case, it’s cypress, which provide plenty of shade.

  12. That is a beautiful, soothing image. Easy on the eyes, that soft green.
    Down here and in other Neotropical countries, the mesquite’s cousin is also valued for cooking/aromas — but the twisted hardwood trunks are used for ‘horcones’ (supports) – aka the posts often used for porches.
    Down here they are also valued for food for cattle (the sweet seeds) and I think are high in iron, and the bees love the flowers, so they are important for bee keepers. It’s a respected tree, even with the thorns!

  13. Fascinating. The description of the bent trees reminds me of our New Forest oaks which were trained during the sixteenth century to grow into the shapes required to build the wooden ships needed to fend off the anticipated Spanish invaders

    1. Your comment was pretty fascinating in itself, Derrick. Training trees toward shapes useful in ship-building takes ‘planning ahead’ to a whole new level! Beyond that, growing trees to build ships to fend off anticipated invaders speaks volumes about the historical relationship of Spain with its neighbors.

  14. A mesquite isn’t my favorite tree, but I think when you live in Texas, they “grow” on you. There’s something about their scruffiness that mirrors the determination of Texans to survive and thrive, despite what some might think of as limitations. What a great picture you’ve got here — it would make a wonderful (and challenging!) puzzle.

    1. It’s interesting how many of our best-known plants are thorny and scruffy: mesquite, dewberry, thistles, and such. They may not be as attractive as some of our wildflowers, but they do thrive, and despite their downsides, we do come to appreciate them. Especially in spring, the mesquite’s a particularly lovely sight, with all that green bursting forth. You’re right that this one would make a good puzzle; those tree limbs might not be as helpful as we’d think.

  15. Of course, I’ve never seen a mesquite tree so have not tried to shelter in its shade either. Most of our northeast deciduous trees offer pretty thorough shade with just little bits of light filtering through. Maybe like a sieve used to drain pasta and not well cleaned afterwards.

    In regards to the reference to Asa Gray above, the only mesquite mentioned is Mesquite Grass-Bouteloua sp. The LBJ Wildflower Center lists Curly Mesquite Grass as Hilaria belangeri. I can’t say what Gray’s first edition Botany included as my Gray’s Manual of Botany copy is the 1950 edition edited and rewritten by Fernald.

    I like the fence in the image a bit more than the typical split rail version one often sees in folks yards.. It reminds me of one shared in an image by fellow blogger Denise Bush from Colorado.

    1. I’d never heard of mesquite grass. I see it earned ‘curly’ because of the plant’s growth patterns, and ‘mesquite’ because it’s found among mesquite trees. As I anticipated, it’s native somewhat west of me, in rockier and drier areas. It grows in Steve’s territory, and out where my hill country friends live; I’ll have to watch for it.

      I’ve never visited Denise’s blog; she certainly provides some beautiful views. I noticed that her fence is logs, while I’m fairly sure this one might be made of old railroad ties. But I like the patterns in both, and I certainly was pleased to find this one paired with the trees.

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