The Cocopah Indian Tribe wants to revive a traditional tea recipe that uses the beans of the screw bean mesquite tree. But finding the beans is more difficult now than it was just decades ago. Turns out the tree that was part of Cocopah culture for millennia is dying off.
No one knows who first said, "Tea is a cup of life," but for Justin Brundin, a member of the Cocopah Indian Tribe in southwestern Arizona, a cup of tea is full of history.
Brundin sips screw bean tea. Made from the beans of a screw bean mesquite tree, it looks like most any tea – it has a similar brownish color and Brundin says it tastes of chamomile or caramel with a hint of nutmeg. The tea is made by drying and grinding the distinctive screw bean.
Brundin is the Cocopah Tribe's Cultural Resources Manager. He says the screw bean once figured prominently in the diet and traditions of the Cocopah. It was used to make another fermented beverage and ground into flour for meal cakes. But Brundin says the foods and the tea faded as a regular staple for tribal members in the 1920s and 30s, possibly due to the innovation of bottled and powdered drinks. Many younger tribal members have never heard of screw bean tea. Brundin says he only learned of it in books.
“Reading stories about the foods that our ancestors drank, when I read about it, I’d never heard of that,” he says. “I asked around, asked some of the elders if they’d ever heard of screw bean tea.”
Elders recalled the tea as a daily beverage. Brundin found a recipe and brewed a batch with friends. He liked it, and now says he'd like others to have a taste of his tribe's history.
“Right now it is a self-made proposition. But who knows, we have lots of really brilliant minds here at Cocopah. I’m sure that someday we are going to have somebody that’ll take off and maybe make some available in a commercial format,” Brundin says.
There's just one problem. The screw bean mesquite tree that produces the screw bean is vanishing. And no one seems to know why.
Brundin drives us to a remote part of the Cocopah Reservation. We’ve been asked not to reveal exactly where, but in a stretch of short brownish-green trees, on the edge of an open field, Brundin finds a lone screw bean mesquite tree.
The tree's unmistakable beans hang loosely from thin light green branches and lay scattered on the desert floor.
Brundin says few noticed the trees are disappearing. But tribal elders did. Now they want to spread the word.
“People have noticed the decline,” Brundin says. “But I don’t think anyone has really thought about it in terms of its scale. This screw bean has a native range that extends all the way to Texas.”
Other traditional plants abound on the Cocopah Reservation. Arrow weed and Cottonwood, used for weaving and building among other things, still grow. Also honey mesquite, which can be ground for flour, seems plentiful here.
There are invasive species too. Salt Cedar, or tamarisk, began to spread in the U.S. in the 1800s, planted to shore up riverbanks and to combat erosion. It is now prolific in the southwest, sucks up water, and some researchers have called it an un-killable invader. Brundin says the salt cedar is “ever-present” and a detriment to native plants.
But does salt cedar have anything to do with the decline of screw bean mesquite trees? Or is it linked the long-term drought or some undiscovered parasite?
Brundin says his research uncovered just two brief scientific reports on the screw bean mesquite tree's decline - one from 2007, the other from 2014. Both cite tree count data that show significant die-offs of screw bean mesquite along the Colorado River in Nevada, Arizona, and California. In some areas newly infected trees died within three months. Most trees near Yuma were infected and 60 percent further north – and that was 12 years ago. The 2014 study say half the screwbean mesquite trees along the Rio Grande, Salt and Gila Rivers in the southwest are gone.
Botanist Ted Martinez of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff says what the Cocopah are noticing is real.
“The screw bean mesquite is another desert legume that grows in our wetlands. It’s really important,” says Martinez. “It’s up here with the velvet mesquite, the honey mesquite, and so it does occupy a pretty big niche in the riparian, and just upland from the really wet areas in the state.”
Martinez says the die-off of screw bean mesquite trees first documented in 2005, likely continues today and the cause is probably a biological agent.
“They still don’t know if it’s a virus, a fungus, or a bacterium. But it’s not completely just weather related, or water table, related,” he says. “But those environmental factors, such as water table and weather, do play a factor.”
But Martinez says research in 2016 by Arizona State University suggested there is some hope. Screw bean mesquite planted as part of restoration efforts along the rivers of the southwest since the early 2000s seem more resistant to the malady. Martinez led some of those efforts along the Colorado River near Yuma.
“These are turning out to be a small form of refugia for the screw bean. So I think the fact that they were put into those plots is a good thing,” Martinez says.
Refugia are areas where a group of organisms can survive, even thrive, through an unfavorable period, like drought, or biological attack.
Whatever the cause of the die-off of screw bean mesquite trees on the Cocopah reservation, Brundin says there is a role for the tribe in their restoration.
“Ecologically it would be a traumatic loss because these seed pods are an important source of food for birds to coyotes. But for us culturally it would be a traumatic loss because this is one of our staple crops,” Brundin says. “This is something that we have relied on for millennia to provide us with food and to lose something like that would be, it’s just unthinkable.”