With many trees and shrubs now bereft of leaves and flowers, more subtle aspects of the landscape come into focus. A tree that many people hardly notice captures my full attention -- specifically, its bark.
Hackberry bark will not stop you in your tracks as does the dramatic, shiny red, peeling bark of paperbark maple or the ghostly white bark of lacebark pine. Hackberry bark possesses a subtle beauty, subtle even in a subtle landscape. You have to recognize the bark, then stop and really look at it.
Hackberry bark is at its best on a clear wintry day when no leafy canopy obstructs the sun, and when the sun is low enough to glance sideways off the gray bark's arranged ridges. Take a look at the way the bark's corky ridges create crisp areas of light and shadow evocative of those sharp, achromatic photographs of the lunar landscape.
Hackberry, although native throughout much of the U.S., is not all that common a tree. Pockets exist here and there, often near waterways.
Hackberry's appeal goes beyond its bark
Hackberry is also worth attention in other seasons. It bears a delectable fruit that tastes like a date. Unfortunately, the fruit is only the size of a large pea and much of it is pit. Still it's worth a nibble.
Birds also appreciate the fruits. Birds that feed on hackberries include cedar waxwings, mockingbirds, American robins, bluebirds, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, northern flickers and quail. The berries continue to hang from the branches well into winter. They are among the preferred winter foods for wild turkeys.
In many respects, hackberry is similar to the American elm, to which it is related. Although neither plant has colorful flowers in the spring or blazing foliage in autumn, both these bottomland trees tolerate diverse soil conditions. Hackberry tolerates even a greater range of environmental conditions than does the elm, laughing off drought, pollution and wind. Both trees also are easy to transplant, and grow rapidly.
The quality for which the American elm is most loved, and which hackberry also possesses, is form. Both grow to become large, vase-shaped trees, majestic on their own or divine when planted in rows on either side of an avenue, over which their upper branches meet to form a natural cathedral.
Pests? Not to worry
American elm gets Dutch elm disease, which has decimated the species as a landscape plant. Hackberry, besides having attractive bark and tasty fruits, is immune to Dutch elm disease.
Hackberry is prone to a couple of diseases, notably nipple-gall on the leaves and witches' broom on branches and twigs. These afflictions cause some disfigurement, but not the death of the plant.
I'm not suggesting planting hackberries now in the way American elms were planted in the 19th century, up and down every street and in every park. Such planting, especially if it were just a single hackberry variety -- Windy City or Prairie Pride, for instance -- would invite disaster. A disease that found fertile ground could run rampant and denude the landscape.
I do suggest that you keep an eye out for hackberry trees, especially now, and admire them. And, occasionally, plant one.