This was the year of hackberry fail.
Unlike my typical “foraging fail” experiences, this time it’s not my fault.
I know where the hackberry trees are, and successfully harvested fruit last December. But this year, almost every tree sports bare branches. I blame the late spring frost that also killed most of the wild cherry blossoms in our area.
The common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is a fairly, um, common tree in central Maryland. This tree is also known as the Northern hackberry. Southern hackberry (Celtis laevigata), or sugarberry, is closely related and produces sweeter fruit; unfortunately its range is further south so I cannot compare the two.
Hackberry trees are so common, in fact, I discovered a cluster of them growing in the wild portion of my yard earlier this summer. While I was thrilled to find them, I was surprised to find they had no fruit. By summer, the fruit has normally set although not yet ripe. Then I realized – none of the hackberry trees on my typical routes had fruit. None.
Hackberry trees are (or should be) easy to spot in the winter, because the tiny berries cling to the branches long after the leaves have fallen. They can remain on the tree throughout the winter season, making the berries a valuable source of food when nothing else is available.
Hackberry fruit is small, crunchy, and sweet. Most of the berry is the seed, which is eaten whole along with fruit. They have almost no moisture at all. The berries are very high in calories for their size, and contain carbohydrates, protein and fat. They are reported to get sweeter the further into winter they go. Most years, the challenge in gathering hackberry fruit is that the trees grow to 30 to 50 feet tall, leaving most of the berries out of human reach.
I finally located ONE singular young tree with berries a week ago, but the fruit tasted rancid rather than sweet.
Hackberry trees also stand out during other seasons due to the distinctive texture of their light gray bark. The best description for it is “warty”.
Even though I can’t talk celebrate a hackberry harvest this year, last year I harvested enough berries to experiment with hackberry milk. Here is the method I used:
Clean the berries, removing stems and any berries that look bad. (Wrinkly and oxidized are okay; rotten is not okay.) Measure twice as much water as berries by volume, and place together in a blender. A high powered blender would be best; my regular old kitchen model didn’t pulverize the fruit nearly as thoroughly as I would have liked. Strain out the solids. Depending on how fine the strainer is, the milk can end up with the consistency of a thin liquid or a puree. Add 1 Tbs of maple syrup at a time, checking for taste. (This step is probably not needed for sugarberries.) The fluid and solids will tend to separate, so stir regularly as you enjoy your drink!
You can also use hackberry milk in cooking, but I haven’t tried this yet. Hopefully next year I will get the chance!