Reports from Spanish missionaries exploring what was then northern Mexico almost 300 years ago described a river with lush, tree-lined banks. Native Americans, who called the land Yanaguana, valued these trees for much more than shade from the brutal summer sun. Trees provided wood for fuel and tools and bark for medicinal purposes. Brasils, Mexican plums and persimmons all provided fruit, and pecans and walnuts provided food that could be stored for months.
The much maligned, homely honey mesquite tree was among the most useful. The hard wood could be hewn into tools or musical instruments; the gum and bark served as an antiseptic. While the tough seeds were discarded, the blossoms and pods were eaten. But don’t expect mesquite pods to be the next gastropub trend in the locavore movement. According to Texas Beyond History:
The Cahuilla utilized mesquite in three different forms – blossoms, green pods, and dried pods. Blossoms were collected and either boiled or roasted on heated stones, squeezed into balls, and consumed. Green pods were pounded into a juice using a mortar and pestle. Most of the harvest probably was pounded into meal using a mortar and pestle. The meal was moistened with water, then allowed to harden into flatcakes a few inches thick. It was stored in this form, but often bruchid beetle eggs would hatch and the cakes would become infested with larvae (Bean and Saubel 1972). The Pima, at least, are on record as saying that the larvae simply added some zest to the meal. Informants said that the pods could be consumed without any preparation by breaking them into small pieces and chewing them (Russell 1908).
While the area off Avenue A adjacent to the River Road neighborhood provides a glimpse of what the river might have looked like in its natural state, the recently opened stretches of the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Improvements Project are virtually treeless.
Flood-control projects of years ago were single-minded; trees impeded flood waters so were removed leaving a barren flood channel. Native grasses and wildflowers planted the past several years as part of the San Antonio River Improvements Project have improved that landscape dramatically, but 100-degree summer days cry out for shade.
My grandmother always said, “Little acorns grow into tall trees;” although she was reassuring a young girl she would one day blossom bosoms. And in greenhouses and fields outside of Lubbock, the Texas Forest Service is nursing acorns and those pesky Anaqua seeds that embed themselves in the ridged valleys of my walking shoes into a huge crop of saplings to shade the next generation hiking along the banks of the San Antonio River.
In November, crews from the San Antonio River Authority will begin planting 3,000 saplings ranging in height from a few inches to a few feet in the first phase of the Mission Reach. Depending on the species – including cedars, willows, cypresses, cottonwoods, elms, Mexican sycamores, possumhaws and redbuds – the trees will take from 10 to fifty years to reach full maturity.
To provide a preview of some of the native trees soon to grace the banks, the San Antonio River Foundation worked with the Parks and Recreation Department of the City of San Antonio to plant 15 trees at Roosevelt Park by Mission Road. The trees were planted in honor of the hard work of the volunteers on the San Antonio River Oversight Committee who have shepherded the project along through the years. This anaqua sporting a Treegator skirt, slowly releasing water to nourish the roots through the drought, is among them.
The River Foundation will be sharing saplings for you to take home and plant from 4:30 to 6 p.m. on Thursday, October 20, at Confluence Park, 310 West Mitchell. In addition a free tree, you will be able to view the Master Plan for this neighborhood park reestablishing the historical connection from the river to Mission Concepcion.
And, the best news: By the close of 2015, the River Authority will have planted another 20,000 trees along the Mission Reach. The next generation might not even need to wear sunscreen on morning walks.
January 24, 2012, Update: Want to add this link to another blogger’s recent post about plantings along the Mission Reach.