Our dog loves hackberry trees. If there is a hackberry seedling within range of her face, she finds it. Under the neighbor’s boxwood, up the U-channel of the stop sign, poking from a storm drain, or wherever. She plucks the leaves with her teeth. She will chew as many as her leash lets her have time for. The seedling may be flanked by baby elm or privet or althea or bush honeysuckle of a similar size, but she only goes for hackberry leaves.
I ate some hackberry leaves to find out. Tiny new ones, and bigger, older ones.
My palate says, “leaf.” Hers must say delicious.
But now is the time of year when hackberry bounty is much, much sweeter: to me, to her, to birds, to mammals, to box turtles. Hackberry berries. Or, to be botanically correct: the drupes.
Berry = a multi-seed, fleshy fruit with soft exocarp, mesocarp and endocarp.
Drupe = a single-seeded, fleshy fruit with soft mesocarp and hard endocarp. Inside the endocarp is the seed.
And this year is a bumper year for tasty hackberries. Did Nashville’s drought concentrate the sweetness? Am I just eating from the right hackberry trees this time?
I follow the dog’s lead (so to speak). If she gobbles drupes from the sidewalk, I’ll eat, too.
Hackberry drupes do not offer much “fruit:” only the thin, outer layer of skin (exocarp) and flesh (mesocarp). You have to skim the sweet bits with your teeth and tongue, then spit the pit (endocarp).
Some people crunch the pit, but these people have better teeth. Inside is a pale kernel of soft nuttiness, which is the potential tree.
Birds love the drupes. You will know this if you’ve parked under a hackberry tree. Cardinals, robins and cedar waxwings are at work in our hackberries right now. I’ve washed my car twice in the last month.
Mammals love them, too. You will know this if you’ve seen possum scat in your yard. Or paid close attention when bagging the waste of your hackberry-loving dog.
I decided this was the year to make something from the bounty. I’ve read of Native American hackberry pemmican; of fruit leather; of dried, pulverized drupes as meat seasoner; and of hackberry “milk” (fresh drupes whizzed with water in a blender), but I was only interested in making jam.
If drupes are so good, wouldn’t jam be even better?
First, it is a pain to make. There is no fast, easy way to separate multiple hackberry fruits from pits. There is only a slow, laborious way. I ended up smashing them with a wooden pin against the innards of an old, conical fruit mill, but this only yielded a smear or two of goo out the other side, which I rubbed with my finger and wiped into a pan. This was after I tried to soften the fruit in hot water for ages. Short of peeling each tiny sphere with a knife, this was the only method that seemed plausible.
Second, hackberry jam does not take the best quality of the drupe and times it by the number of drupes used. It subtracts. Perhaps heat alters the sweet? The jam is edible, but also gross.
And worst of all, it is not the lovely dark red or red-purple of fresh drupes. The jam is the pumpkin color of fresh bird poo: birds which have feasted on hackberries above the driveway.
Still, I am pleased I tried. I can cross it off my list of Hackberry Things to Do.
What I learned:
Hackberry drupes are a seasonal pleasure that cannot be adequately preserved. Drupes mold in the fridge, dry out in the kitchen, and make revolting jam.
Now I know the best way to appreciate hackberry fruit is simply as “hand fruit,” and that to stand on the sidewalk to chew and spit is my ideal Serving Suggestion.
Hackberries should be gobbled as they fall, if you can get to them ahead of our dog.
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The hackberry jam recipe I followed is at Wild Edible Plants of Texas. Amy, the author, thought it was delicious, and maybe hers was. Either way, I love the fact she tried it, wrote about it, and sees value and beauty in my favorite native “trash tree.”