Most folks are familiar with the names of trees like oak, maple, elm, ash, birch, and cottonwood. But one abundant tree around here that may not be as well-known is the hackberry.
I am not sure when I became familiar with these native trees, but it was before I could identify many trees at all. Because as soon as I saw the distinctive bark of the hackberry, I was excited I would be able to identify at least one tree on hikes through the woods.
The reason I felt comfortable identifying hackberry trees was the "warty ridges" of bark that are very evident, especially in younger trees. I recently looked at a couple dozen of them across from the Silver Lake pool and realized they are the main boulevard trees on that stretch, with mature trees ranging in size from 1 to 3 feet in diameter.
Hackberry are medium-sized trees, found throughout the world, and much of the U.S., east from the Dakotas. They usually grow 30 to 50 feet high, although some 100-footers might be found in southern reaches of the Mississippi.
They have a very pleasant cylindrical appearance, can live for more than a hundred years, and provide excellent shade. I think one of the reasons I never paid much attention to them, even though I’d biked by them hundreds of times, was that other than the bark they do not stand out as anything special, as trees go, at least to me.
But, talking with City Forester Jeff Haberman, he had nothing but good to say about hackberry trees except "they do not provide the spectacular fall colors people like." However, he noted the City plants many of them, and they are on the list of trees homeowners can put on their boulevards. He calls them a "wonderful substitution for people losing their ash trees."
In a couple months, when the hackberry leaves turn a soft yellow color, their small purplish berries will be ripening into an excellent source of nutrition. Over the centuries they have undoubtedly been used by many cultures, and are a great food source for birds. I have tasted a few of the small crunchy pea-sized berries with a single small nut inside, and find them neither sweet, nor foul tasting.
One of my favorite connections with hackberry trees has been seeing huge numbers of hackberry emperor butterflies during major summer hatches. These relatively small, non-descript butterflies lay their eggs only on hackberry leaves, which also provide nutrition for the hatching larva.
I recall seeing small hatches show up at Quarry Hill during a handful of summers, but nothing like some I have seen driving through the Whitewater Valley during a few years over the last decade or so. One such hatch was so major that while counting on a seven-mile stretch of road between Elba and Weaver I estimated seeing over 40,000 of them on the road and shoulder, counting by hundreds as I slowly drove through them.
Hackberry seeds can be harvested any time after they ripen in early fall, well into winter and early spring, when those still hanging on are a welcome treat for migrating birds. They don’t normally rot, and I have never heard of them fermenting like crab apples do, often causing some birds to get quite "high." The somewhat hard berries may need a bit of chewing or wooden-mallet tenderizing for humans to eat. However, I suspect once eaten by birds they reside in their gizzard for a few hours to get ground up for digesting.
Anyone wanting to grow their own hackberry trees should be able to pick seeds from trees I mentioned above at Silver Lake. They can be planted in an inch or two of good soil where some may survive the many four-legged consumers who would gladly dig them up for a meal.