We have several Hackberry trees out here at Tanglefoot. This unfortunately named tree supposedly earned it’s moniker because a decoction from the bark can be used to treat cough (hack). Originally thought to be a member of the Elm Family (Ulmaceae), Celtis Occidentalis is now classified as a member of the Hemp family ( Cannabaceae,) which seems rather random, but there ya go.
The Common Hackberry is native to Eastern North America – Quebec to Manitoba, North Carolina, Missouri and Oklahoma. Hackberries tolerate a variety of soils and growing conditions from dry to moist and rich woods, river banks, or rocky barrens. At Tanglefoot, it grows on our north property line, in the loamy area near the creek, and also on the drier southern edge of our property in hard clay. It’s not a picky tree at all!
Hackberry trees often grow as an understory tree in oak or elm forest. It is an allelopathic tree, and tolerates growing near other allelopathic trees such as the Black Walnut. In fact, two of the largest we have at Tanglefoot are cozied right up to our Black Walnut, along with Beauty Berry and Poppy Mallow.
Hackberries are a very attractive tree. The leaves are a medium green, similar to that of an Elm, and turn to a golden yellow in early Fall. Red-to-purple berries follow in the late Fall and often persist into late winter. The bark is an attractive silvery-gray with distinctive corky bumps and ridges.
Hackberries grow to 65 feet, with an equal spread, and have a pleasing rounded vase form. They are ideal for Oklahoma as they are extremely resistant to wind damage or flagging. Also, their lifespan exceeds 150 years. Personally, I think every brittle, short-lived Bradford Pear tree in the state should be replaced with a Hackberry. Just my $0.02. It’s a shame these lovely trees aren’t planted more often.
Native Americans used the Hackberry as a source of food, for medicinal purposes, and for special ceremonies. The bark of the tree was boiled down and used to induce abortions, regulate menstrual cycles, and treat cough. The berries were often crushed and dried to flavor foods, or mixed with corn and animal fats to make a thick porridge or heavy travel cake .
The berries are an excellent source of nutrition, containing sugars, protien, and fiber, along with trace minerals and sugars. Berries are sweet, with a date-like flavor and a single, crunchy seed within.
Hackberry is a soft wood, so has little commercial value. However, it makes excellent firewood. Hackberry splits easily, burns clean and hot with little sparking, and has a pleasant smell.Use it to smoke meats; it imparts a light hickory flavor.
Hackberry trees are a good choice for coppicing. This is good news for two reasons; the tree becomes a renewable source of firewood, and a coppiced tree allows for easier harvesting of the berries.
Hackberry trees put down deep, wide roots, so they help retain soil and reduce erosion .They make great shade trees because of their large canopy. They also serve very well in a windbreak because of their wind resistance and deep roots. Interestingly, Hackberry is also amenable to bonsai cultivation.
Hackberries are an excellent tree to support wildlife and even stock animals. Deer, sheep, and goats will readily browse the leaves. Birds, squirrels, and small mammals use the berries as a winter food source.
These trees are host to a number of insect species including the Hackberry Emperor, and Mourning Cloak Butterfly. They also host a variety of gall-making psyllids which birds use as winter food. If you want to find Brown Creepers, Kinglets, Nuthatches, and Chickadees in winter, check a Hackberry .
Propagating Hackberry Trees
Propagate Hackberry by growing seed, grafting, or by rooting cuttings. If using seed, they should be stratified for best results. Dip cuttings in rooting hormone and planted in a loamy soil. Protect young trees from galls mites and powdery mildew, and roots should not be wet. As the trees mature, they will be better able to tolerate wet conditions and pests.
Stacking functions is a permaculture concept that simple means every element in the garden should serve multiple purposes. In short, you want something that gives more bang for the buck. Hackberry certainly meets this criteria. It provides food and shelter for wildlife, and food for humans. It can be coppiced for a renewable source of firewood, and it can be easily propagated. What more could you ask for from a single tree?
References: http://www.forestry.ok.gov/Websites/forestry/Images/trees,hackberry.pdf https://www.balkep.org/celtis-occidentalis.html https://sciencing.com/interesting-hackberry-tree-6513384.html https://cobirds.org/CFO/ColoradoBirds/HungryBird/11.pdf https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/chiwonlee/plsc422/student/2002/mshervey/hackberry.htm http://www.thesmokering.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=25137&sid=a9b89619ff45ea1bc2ce850e2eb4ca83