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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Arb Notes – Hackberry

One of the best trees to learn to identify in Northfield might be the hackberry, Celtis occidentalis. It’s a medium-sized deciduous tree with small red-purple berries throughout the winter. Need a snack in the woods? The hackberries are edible, and purportedly taste like dates (although the flesh of the fruit is tiny, and the seed quite large). The berries have been used in medicine, as flavoring, and to make jam by various Tribal Nations across the United States.

How can you make sure you’re eating a real hackberry, and not another Arb berry that can make you sick? Hackberry leaves are two to five inches long with serrated edges and an asymmetrical base. The trees have distinctive, and rather spectacular, deeply ridged and corky bark. When young, the ridges in the bark appear as simple warts. The hackberry tree grows throughout the arboretum and much of the Eastern United States. Here, it enjoys both floodplains and upland forests. Fully grown, the hackberry has a graceful round canopy, like an elm tree. And indeed, the hackberry and American elm are closely related. Since the spread of Dutch elm disease across North America, killing most American elms, the hackberry has taken its place; in forests and along streets, the hackberry provides a gentle shade. 

Humans, who enjoy hackberries, have eaten them for quite some time: 400,000-year-old hominid skeletons in China have been found with bare hackberry seeds around them. By some estimates, this makes hackberries one of the oldest plants found consumed by a hominid. But the name ‘hackberry’ comes from the Scottish ‘hagberry,’ meaning ‘bird cherry.’ Hackberries are a perennial favorite of migrating bird populations, which snack on them from fall to spring. This fall, watch cedar waxwing flocks flit through hackberry branches.

Hackberry trunk. Photo credit: Emily Buckner ’15

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