The hackberry (celtis occidentalis and virtually indistinguishable sugarberry or celtis laevigata) is an iconic example of a tree that is generally regarded as a “trash tree” here in the South, but which has a rich history of edible, medicinal and sacred use.
When Dan and I first decided to start learning about trees with the same fervor we had given to other plants, the hackberry was one of the first trees that stood out to me as someone I wanted to get to know. However, it took quite a while before I could consistently identify her. It also seemed that every time I did come across a hackberry, the berries were never ripe- that I was always finding the previous winters’ berries. Some things just take the time they take.
A few days ago, I was in my garden tending to the compost when I noticed red berries all over the compost pile. I wondered what they were, and thought that they looked a bit like hackberries. I looked up, and saw overhanging our garden from the abandoned harden next door what seemed like a giant and ancient hackberry tree. We had been in that yard many times before to pick sorrel leaves and tubers. How could we have missed it, so glaringly obvious? When it’s time, it’s time.
Once you know what you are looking for, it is quite difficult to miss sweet hackberry. She has distinctive warts on the bark and is almost always full of galls on the branches as well as the leaves.
Hackberries have a long and extensive history of use on this continent by Native Americans. The berries are rich in protein, fat and carbohydrate, so rightly so! They have been boiled, dried, ground and mixed into pemmican (a dried meat and fruit staple food). The tree has also been used to make medicine of different types. The Houma would make a “women’s medicine”, which I love because to me, the tree has a distinct feminine spirit (hence my use of the feminine articles to describe her). The Kiowa would also burn the wood in the altar fire during peyote ceremonies. I adore finding plant spirit medicine connections!
Recently, I have spent quite a bit of time collecting the abundant, if extremely fiddly, berries. I have done a bit of kitchen experimenting and am happy to share the results! Today, I am showing how to make a quick and tasty hackberry milk. There are two ways to make it, one raw and one not. This is for the raw version. It has a beautiful color and a distinctive and slightly sweet flavor bursting with that wild food factor. Try it!
I used a little over 1 cup hackberries, 2 tbsp. maple syrup, a pinch of sea salt and a dash of cinnamon.
Blend in a high speed blender with about 2 cups filtered water for about 2 minutes (until the hard seeds are definitely blended smooth)
You will be left with some beautifully golden and sweet hackberry milk. We drank some of it as is, used some in place of coconut milk in a thai curry and also made this incredibly delicious chia pudding:
Chia seeds soaked in hackberry milk, topped with pomegranate seeds, banana and foraged pecans. So yum! My sincere desire is that you are inspired to go out and make use of this, or another wild plant today. Happy Foraging!