Hackberry trees are noxious weeds. At least that’s what I was taught growing up. My parents would grumble and mutter about it taking over, spreading through our small woodlot like bindweed, popping up in the fence rows wherever the birds had rested on a wire, and dropping its litter of berries underfoot. The way they complained about it you’d think it was the arboreal equivalent of poison ivy. It was a nuisance, stealing space from other, better trees—not even worth the firewood we got from chopping it down.
I must admit, as a child, I could never quite muster the same dislike my parents felt. Perhaps it was my growing fondness for trees in general, being a type of vegetation not found in overwhelming abundance in central Kansas. Perhaps it was an innate urge to root for the underdog. Then again, perhaps it was just blatant stubbornness. In any case, I developed a strange sympathy for the hackberry trees, unattractive and unwanted as they were. This sympathy has never quite waned. Now, so many years later, it turns out that my childhood instincts were right. What had been casually dismissed as a nuisance was in fact a bountiful supply of free food.
The hackberry tree is certainly one of the most important food sources for wildlife in North America. Everything from raccoons and bears to white-footed mice and wild turkeys feed on its fruit. Even box turtles have been known to munch on the fallen drupes. Yet it is rarely recognized as a human food source. In fact, many people—those who are not complaining of its weed-like tendencies—barely even notice its existence at all. This has given rise to one of its many names, bois inconnu or “unknown wood,” though “invisible” might be a better adjective. Yet this often overlooked tree is believed to be one of the oldest known plant foods consumed by mankind.
In Zhoukoudian, China hackberry seeds have been found in the cave deposits of the Peking Man dig site along with other foodstuffs, which sets the earliest known date for their consumption by humans at around 500,000 years ago. The berries were also one of the most common plant remains found at the Meadowcroft Rock Shelter site in Pennsylvania. Archaeologists estimate the site was occupied by hunter-gatherers as far back as 16,000 years ago. In central Turkey, the uncovering of the Neolithic town of Çatalhöyük revealed hackberries at every level of the dig. Inhabited between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago, Çatalhöyük gives evidence that it was not only hunter-gatherers who relied on the humble tree as a food source; established agricultural communities did as well.
With a range that covers every continent except Antarctica—though who knows what’s buried under all that ice—it is not surprising that caches of hackberries have been discovered at such widespread archaeological sites as Peru, Indonesia, Sudan, and South Africa. Of course, numerous Native American groups valued the tree as well. Among the Kiowa, the drupes were mashed into a paste which was then molded around a stick and roasted over a fire. The Comanche on the other hand were known to mix the fruit paste with fat, and roll it into a ball before cooking. For the Osage, it was common to form the berries into cakes to be stored for winter. This method of preservation was followed by the Mescalero and Chiricahua Apache as well, though they also used the fruit to make jelly in addition to simply eating it fresh. The Dakota ground the whole berry, flesh, and stone, and used it as a seasoning for their meat. Ground drupes were turned into a type of porridge among the Meskwaki, while the Pawnee mixed the mashed berries with fat and parched corn.
Even the ancient Greeks and Romans are believed to have used the hackberry as a common food source. In the “Odyssey” Homer describes a race of people known as the “lotus-eaters,” so called because they subsisted on the fruit of the “lotus tree.” One taste of this fruit was enough to make the eater forget every longing for home or family and desire nothing but to remain in the land of the “lotus.” The most commonly suggested candidate for Homer’s “lotus tree” is the Mediterranean hackberry, also known as the European nettle tree. It must have been an exceptional fruit. While fond of the berries, I have yet to taste any sweet enough to give me amnesia; but the sweetness of the drupe can vary dramatically from tree to tree. Homer’s hackberries must have been extraordinary.
Food, however, is not the only use these “invisible” trees have been put to. Traditional cultures have long treasured the hackberry for its medicinal value as well. The berries have been used to treat abnormal menstrual flow, colic, peptic ulcers, diarrhea and dysentery as well as being used as a pain killer. A decoction made from the bark was used by certain Native American tribes to treat sore throats and venereal diseases. Even modern scientists have begun to recognize the tree’s antioxidant and cytotoxic properties.
Thankfully hackberries are not difficult to find. There are 50 to 75 different species in the world. Six to eight of those species, depending on which source you’re citing since apparently even the botanists can’t agree, find their home in the United States. These vary in size from large shrubs to full blown trees and live everywhere from deserts to hardwood forests. The berries can range from orange-red all the way to dark purple, but are generally about the size of a pea. Those found here in Kansas tend to be a dark reddish-brown with occasional hints toward purple.
The name hackberry is actually derived from hagberry, a name that unfortunately doesn’t exactly scream “eat me!” There are of course a variety of other names often applied to it, though only a handful are at all encouraging: nettle tree, hoop ash, honeyberry, hacktree, beaverwood, false elm, sugarberry, and bastard elm among others. In any case, whatever name you choose to call it by, you should take the time to familiarize yourself with the varieties most common in your area before setting out to harvest the wild fruit. A good field guide is always a wise addition to your foraging arsenal.
Common hackberry, or Celtis occidentalis, is the variety most familiar to my area of the country. They generally grow to between 50 and 70 feet tall, though some have been known to reach over a hundred. The bark is gray, thick, and extremely rough, scored with deep furrows and ridges. Granted, on younger growth, the bark can be rather smooth, but as the tree ages, it develops more and more of these warty knobs. The leaves produced by C. occidentalis are large, rough, and placed alternately along the branch. They are somewhat triangular in shape, though it is a rather asymmetrical triangle with a long tapered point, and their upper edges have a shallow serration. Surprisingly, one of the best identifying markers of the common hackberry is a disease called “hackberry nipple gall” which produces small lumps on the underside of the leaves but otherwise causes no harm.
Depending on the local climate of your particular region, you’ll usually find hackberry drupes ripening around September or October. However, don’t worry if you can’t get out to harvest them right away. Unlike other fruit, hackberries tend to stay on the tree all winter long. Occasionally they’ll hang on even into the spring, though in a typical year the wildlife will have gobbled them up before then. With a relatively high sugar content and an extremely low moisture content, these tasty morsels are practically impervious to spoilage. Some foragers insist that the flavor becomes even sweeter during cold weather.
Since hackberries have never been commercially grown as a food crop, the flavor has never been “standardized.” The sweetness of the fruit and the thickness of the seed shell can vary from one tree to the next. So it pays to collect from more than one tree—or at the very least find the tree whose taste you like the best.
In a survival situation, hackberries are the gold medal winner of plant foods. They can be eaten right off the tree without any cooking or other preparation and their high caloric content makes them a little edible powerhouse. When the seed and flesh are consumed together, you have a food source high in protein, fats, and carbohydrates as well as significant levels of calcium, phosphorus, and fiber. In his book Nature’s Garden, Samuel Thayer suggests that a person could probably live for several months while eating nothing but hackberries. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to test the theory, but it’s good to know a handful of the berries could easily replace a full meal now and then.
If, on the other hand, you want something a bit more adventurous than simply eating handfuls of raw berries straight off the tree, there are a variety of ways you can enjoy them. A quick internet search will turn up multiple recipes for hackberry jam. I, however, prefer simpler preparations, or at least preparations that do not require the addition of massive amounts of sugar.
One of the simplest and easiest is to mash the whole berry, seed and all, in a mortar or food processor until it is a thick past. You can then mix in other dried fruits, chopped nuts, shredded coconut, or whatever you have on hand. Pinch off bits of this “dough,” roll it into a ball and you have hackberry no-bake cookies. I like adding chopped dried dates and dredging the balls in cocoa powder to make a hackberry truffle. You can also take your fruit mixture, form it into bars and dehydrate it to make your own energy bars.
If, however, you find that you don’t relish the somewhat gritty texture of the crushed seeds, don’t let it dissuade you from using the fruit. Simply add one part berry mash to two parts water and gently boil for 20 to 30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by about half. Strain out the pulp and you are left with hackberry milk. This liquid makes an exceptional hot drink and is probably my favorite way to enjoy the fruit. You can sweeten the milk with a little honey or homemade maple syrup, add cinnamon or nutmeg, or even stir in a spoonful of cocoa powder for a unique hot chocolate experience. I, however, prefer it plain.
Suppose hot drinks aren’t your thing. Not to worry. Add the milk to a soup or stew. Replace part of the liquid in your next batch of muffins or bread with it. Use it as a base for gravy. Cook your oatmeal or other hot cereal in the hackberry milk. You can even boil the liquid down to syrup and try it on your pancakes. With a bountiful and free food source there is plenty of room for experimentation.
If you do not intend to use your entire harvest immediately you’ll find that hackberries are quite possibly the easiest plant food to store long term. All that is necessary is to spread them in a shallow layer on a cookie sheet or other tray and leave them for several weeks to finish drying. Stir them up once in a while when you happen to walk by to help with the air circulation. After a few weeks of this, simply transfer them to a jar or other air tight container and you’re done. Your hackberries are now fully prepped for long term storage and will keep for years, likely outlasting any impending nuclear war or zombie apocalypse that comes your way.
Fresh hackberries can be used as they are. When preparing to use your dried hackberries, however, I recommend pouring boiling water over them and letting them soak overnight. Otherwise, any mashing you intend to do will be somewhere on the same level as trying to grind rocks—frustrating and way too slow. The soaking seems to soften up the pits a bit as well, which is all to the good since otherwise—if you’ve got a batch with particularly thick seed shells—they can leave you with the feeling that you’re chomping on birdshot. The end result is well worth the extra step.
So when the weather starts cooling down take a bucket and wander out to the nearest fence row or wood lot and see if you can’t find a few “invisible” hackberry trees. Fill your pail and marvel at how this much-maligned plant has patiently continued to produce its treasure trove year after year, quietly waiting for us to recognize the amazing gift it was offering.