The Most Under-Rated Incredible Edible Tree
by Akiva Silver
Hackberry, celtis occidentalis, is one of the worst named and least appreciated trees. They are truly magnificent full sized canopy trees that grace the forests of the Northeast and the world. The fruit they produce in copious amounts is bar none excellent wildlife feed. Hackberry's bizarre bark alone makes it worth growing, but there is so much more to these resilient native trees.
Why the hackberry is not a more well known tree is a complete mystery to me. The trees produce a quality hardwood, are commonly scattered throughout the Northeast, the bark and berries are striking, and they make excellent shade and street specimens. Hackberries are outstanding trees for wildlife and foragers.
There are many species of hackberry found around the world, and several native to North America. Celtis occidentalis is the tree native to the Northeast that I am familiar with.
Hackberries have a thin, very sweet purple skin surrounding a crunchy shell with a tiny nut inside. All hackberries are edible and highly nutritious. They have been consumed by humans for millennia and are one of the first known foods that humans have eaten and stored. Caches of hackberries have been found in ancient cave sites. It is no wonder that early people were eating hackberries. They are high in fat, protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins. Hackberries are almost like a hybrid between a nut and a berry. They are a versatile, power packed food.
Flavor will vary from tree to tree, but in general they are sweet, tasty, and crunchy. Some are thin shelled and have the consistency of a peanut m&m, others are much harder. They can be so crunchy at times that it is hard to chew them. This crunchiness is best overcome with a little processing. Smash the berries in a mortar and pestle or with a couple blocks of wood. The more crushed up, the better. You can then take the mash and form it into any shape. It will keep quite well stored at room temperature and makes an excellent trail food.
Hackberries are not easy to harvest. They are small and high up. I usually collect hackberries in the winter when there is snow on the ground. If you can knock the branches with a stick, the fallen berries are easy to see on the snow. They can be collected any time they are ripe starting in the fall all the way until early spring when migrating birds return and wipe them out. They do not rot on the tree as they don't spoil easily.
The bark of the hackberry is so distinctive it is a wonder that it is not more common in ornamental landscape plantings. They would be a great addition to a winter garden especially. The bark looks like millions of skinny ridges that are layered like sedimentary rock. Many people think of the grand canyon when they see the bark. A group of kids I was working with named hackberry ‘the rougher bumper tree’. There is no other tree a person could reasonably confuse hackberry with.
Hackberries are native to rich alluvial flood plains. However, they are very tough adaptable trees that will grow just about anywhere. They do very well in urban settings, along creeks, and out on the edges of weedy fields. They can be very fast growing in decent soil.
Many cities have chosen to plant them because of their ability to withstand drought and flooding. They are also not messy trees. The berries are picked by birds (or foragers) before they hit the ground.
Hackberries are easy to grow from seed. I collect seed at the end of winter and plant in fertile, weed free soil about an inch deep and an inch apart. A 12-18” tree can be expected the first year at this spacing. Watch out for seed predators though, as many wild critters would gladly eat all your hackberries.
I doubt threre is another tree worse named or more unjustifiably ignored. Hackberries belong on our city streets, hedgerows, parks, and surrounding livestock and poultry yards. They are generous trees that ask nothing in return. Plant a few and add a gift to people and wildlife that can last for centuries.