The hackberry tree is found all over Arkansas, but it is something of a Rodney Dangerfield – it gets no respect.
That’s from humans. All sorts of wild critters know the hackberry and love it.
The tree has its good points, and it has its bad points. The fruit of the hackberry is relished by birds, many animals and even humans who know what it is. But the fruit is tiny – pea-sized. The wood of the hackberry burns well in fireplaces and stoves, although most users rate it below oak, hickory and ash.
Drying makes a difference in hackberry for firewood. Hackberry wood that has dried for six months to a year or so will burn in the fireplace much better than freshly cut or unseasoned wood. The wood splits fairly well.
On the downside, hackberry trees can be invasive and troublesome. Their roots often come to the surface of the ground, meaning they can push up and buckle sidewalks, driveways and even paved streets. In yards, the roots can interfere with mowers. The limbs are brittle, making them susceptible to Arkansas ice storms.
But hackberry trees grow almost anywhere.
They can tolerate drought conditions, and they can withstand boggy conditions. They do all right in alkaline soils, and they can grow in acidic soils, although not as well as in other types of ground.
Hackberry trees can grow large — 60 or more feet tall and two feet or more in diameter at chest height. In Arkansas, the trees are usually smaller, anywhere from a half-foot to a foot and a half in diameter.
Wildlife biologists find all sorts of critters in and around hackberry trees.
Butterflies of many species like them. Songbirds such as the bluebird, cedar waxwing, yellow-bellied sapsucker, mockingbird and robin go for hackberries. The berries are also eaten by wild turkey, quail and doves. Squirrels like the berries, as do raccoons, beavers, possums, skunks and foxes.
Hackberry jelly and jam is a delicacy but an uncommon one. It takes considerable effort to gather enough of the little berries to make a batch of jam, but it can be done. Native Americans crushed the berries and used them for seasoning meats, historians tell us.
Here are instructions for hackberry jam from a Texas friend:
Wash the berries, remove the stems and place them in a saucepan with enough water to cover the berries. One cup of berries will eventually yield about 1/2 cup of jam. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Once the skin has softened, use a masher to begin removing the skin and pulp from the seed. Pour the water and berries through a sieve or strainer into another saucepan to strain out the seeds. Push as much of the pulp through the strainer as possible using a wooden spoon. At this point, you might realize that a lot of the pulp and skin is still on the strainer. Take about 1/4 cup of the hackberry water in the saucepan and pour it back through the strainer to wash extra pulp into the saucepan. Pour another 1/4 cup or so of water through the strainer into the saucepan. Pull the skin pieces off the seeds and throw them into the saucepan. This adds some flavor and texture to the finished jam.
Add 1/4 cup sugar (for 1 cup of hackberries) and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to the saucepan and boil. Then simmer and stir the liquid until it thickens — 15 to 25 minutes. Pour the thickened jam into a jar and seal or serve with biscuits.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock.