(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 24, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
I have a friend whom I have known for many years. That's the thing about friends, when they hang around for "many" years, you know they can certainly be considered good friends. My friend is a generation older than I am, as a matter of fact he has been a retired physician for very nearly 20 years, and yet he still teaches an occasional class at the medical school in the city where he lives. And though he is well into his eighties, he also still rides his bike to work occasionally. He knows of my passion for plants, particularly their medicinal role in history. I don't see him often, but we talk on the phone quite frequently. This morning, I answered the phone, and he said: "Hey, whattya know about hackberry?"
"Not a lot," I said, "it produces a sweet fruit, and that's about all I know."
"Aha!" he said, "A valuable plant that you don't recognize!"
That was my challenge, he was one up on me, and he was keeping score. He likes to talk about the value in plants, and how they might have benefitted cultures that came before ours, just as I do. I have to stay on my toes around him because, don't you know, the next time we talk, his first words will be: "What did you find out about hackberry?" He never forgets a thing.
Celtis occidentalis, the common Hackberry is a large tree native to North America. It has a slender trunk that grows to a height of sixty feet in the middle states, but can be much taller the further south it grows. It is not particular where it grows, it prefers moist soil, but will grow on gravelly or rocky hillsides. But it is very particular about sunlight, and must live in full sun in order to survive. The beauty of the tree is truly in its bark. It is a cork like bark, light brown or silvery gray, smooth for the most part, but often with rough, wart like protuberances. The wood is light yellow, heavy, soft, coarse grained and not strong. The leaves are about 2 to 4 inches long, and at full growth are bright green, rough above, and paler green beneath. In autumn the leaves turn a bright yellow. It flowers in May, then produces small berries that turn orangy red to a really dark purple. They are ripe in September and October and remain on the branches during winter. I was wondering by then, if this tree had any value at all.
I can't regale you with stories about my experiences with hackberries in the mountains of southeast Kentucky where I grew up. I remember the tree, and knew it as one that I didn't dare sit under in the fall. It's berries could fall to the ground, and my mother warned me about getting hackberry stains on my backside. It seems the stain was reluctant to come out of clothing. It was fun, though, to sit near the tree and to watch the birds and butterflies flit about its branches. I should have recognized its value from that alone.
Historically, early Americans made cakes by pulvorizing the entire fruit, including the seeds. They made a sweet bread from it, one which could be stored and used indefinitely. The cakes often provided sustenance to weary explorers on their westward treks. The Dakotas used the dried fruit as a spice, and other Native Americans used extracts of the tree to treat sore throats, coughs, and colds. Even that alone did not make the tree valuable, because it is no longer extolled for its curative powers. And I have never seen it listed as a food item on any menu I have read.
That value was certainly not in the wood, because it is soft and rots easily, which makes it undesirable commercially. It is however used for some furniture, boxes, crates, and plywood. So here I was, trying desperately to find some value in this tree, otherwise my friend would never have questioned me about it.
I was beginning to doubt it had any purpose at all, and thought he must surely be joking me, when I suddenly realized it is one of the best food and shelter plants for wildlife. I had not really noticed that its berries remain on its branches throughout the winter months. Quail, pheasants, woodpeckers, and cedar waxwings feed on its fruit. Also, it is pollinated by bees, and in turn the bees produce honey for those of us who love it. Honey is now being used medicinally in New Zealand, and many of us are concerned about the decreasing numbers of honeybees. Yet another of its valuable qualities is that it is larval and nectar source for so many butterflies, the tawny emperor and the mourning cloak, among many others.
I hope I am up to the challenge when I next hear from my friend. He will undoubtedly ask me first, "Whattya know about the hackberry?"
And like a true student of nature, I will enlighten him with all I have told you.
It's nice to have friends like that. He keeps me on my toes.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Melody for the thumbnail and the budding branch, Creekwalker for the photo of the green berry, and to Jeff_Beck for the photo of the ripe winter berry.