Hackberry trees have a bad reputation. I’m talking really, really bad. Listening to some people rag on them you’d think a hackberry tree swindled them out of their life savings or ran away with their dog. I’ve heard it described as a “trash” tree, and that one should always “hack it down.”
Whoa! Let’s calm down folks. I’m inviting everyone to take another look. To know the hackberry is to love the hackberry.
Part of the reason people don’t like the hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is that it’s bark is kind of funky looking. It develops layers of spongy bark that form distinctive ridges along the trunk. When it’s young, the bark has wart-ish looking bumps. If smoothness is your beauty ideal, then the hackberry might not measure up. I think the sheer uniqueness of the bark is wonderful.
Hackberries produce berries, unsurprisingly (or drupes). The flesh is sweet and tastes good, but the fruit is more like a nut or seed than a berry. The seed to flesh ratio swings much more to the seedy side. Since the seed is so hefty, the fruit is extremely high in protein, fat, vitamins, and carbohydrates. Nature’s energy bar: foragers collect the berries, grind them up, and shape the mash into bars.
People complain that the branches of the hackberry are easily blown off the tree and create a mess. I don’t know how much stock I put into this claim. In my experience the trees are pretty solid, and can even make decent firewood.
Hackberries will spread because birds eat the berries and poop out the seeds. Either you’ll want to pull up the resulting seedlings, or perhaps replant them somewhere else. Or pot them up and give them as gifts!
Another issue that people seem to have with the hackberry is that it doesn’t live long. Again, I don’t know where that belief comes from––maybe some landscaper had some bad luck and wrote about it online back in the early days of blogging. In fact, hackberry lifespan is around 150 years, and up to 200 years. Not insanely long in tree years, but plenty long in human years!
Cities in Serbia and Slovakia use hackberry trees to line their streets. It’s branches start quite high up, so cars can drive under them. They provide excellent shade and resemble the elm without being susceptible to disease. Hackberry trees are tolerant of poor soil conditions and pollution, making them perfect urban trees.
Final fun hackberry fact: it’s in the Cannabaceae family, along with cannabis and hops.
It’s safe to say that people figured out the nutritional benefit of the hackberry fruit a loooooong time ago. Hackberry seed shells were found at the archeological site of the “Peking Man” in China, which dates back about 750,000 years. The “man” is a member of the homo erectus species, an ancient relative of homo sapien.
Hackberry trees grow pretty much everywhere except Antarctica. The fruit, bark, and wood have been used to feed, heal, and shelter people all over the world. Indigenous population of North America used a decoction of the bark to treat menstrual complaints and sore throats.
The name seems to come from early Scottish settlers mistaking it for the “hagberry,” or bird cherry (Prunus padus), that was native to their home country. The fruit of the two trees looks similar, although P. padus has more cherry-like blooms and differently shaped leaves.”Hag” became “hack” over time.
Eventually, the wood was used to make barrel hoops due to its strength and flexibility, and floorboards for homesteaders. Other than that the hackberry has flown under the radar for centuries!
If you take a look around your property you might find some hackberry already growing. It took me four years to find them on our property––I was out one sunny winter afternoon, following a snowmobile trail our neighbour had made, and I found myself fascinated by the bark on a few trees scattered around an area that gets flooded out in spring. It was so spongy! I took to the internet to try and identify the specimen and made my happy discovery.
If you don’t have a hackberry, there’s no time like the present. The wildlife will thank you, and you will thank you.