Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Sugarberry and Hackberry

Celtis laevigata and Celtis occidentalis

By Adam Benfer

The sugarberry and hackberry are two very closely related species of trees in the Elm Family (Ulmaceae) that were used as a food, medicine, fiber, and dye source by a number of Native North American tribes. These species are also known as the, nettle tree, honeyberry, western hackberry, thick-leaved hackberry, southern hackberry, rough-leaved hackberry, bastard elm, hoop ash, upland hackberry, hacktree, Georgia hackberry, Mississippi hackberry, desert hackberry, spiny hackberry, shiny hackberry, netleaf hackberry, garabato, garabato blanco, cumaro, combro, uchica, granjeno, palo de arco, palo blanco, palo de √°guila, acebuche, rompecapa, chaparro blanco, bainoro, vainoro, huasteco, capul, capui, garumbullo, gumbro, (Angier [2008] 1974: 88; Hodgson 2001: 240).


Hackberry trees usually grow to a height of 30 to 40 feet and to a trunk diameter of 1 to 2 feet, though these trees can be much larger. The best way to identify a hackberry tree is by its warty, gray to brown bark. Hackberry trees have egg-shaped leaves that taper to a point that are 2.3 to 4 inches long and 1.5 to 2 inches wide. The margins of the leaves are slightly toothed. Hackberry fruits range from dark-red to purple and have a diameter of 1/3 inch. Sugarberry trees look somewhat similar, but their fruits are orange or yellow (Brockman and Merrilees 2001: 142).

Geographic Distribution

Sugarberry and Hackberry trees grow throughout the North American continent in habitats as varied as swamps, wetlands, stream banks, rocky hillsides, and hardwood forests (Angier [2008] 1974: 88).

Food Use

The Yavapai, Acoma, Laguna, Papago, Navajo, Hualapai, Pueblo, Tewa, Keres, and Omaha are all known to have eaten dried or fresh hackberries with some frequency. The Kiowa pounded hackberries into a paste that they molded onto a stick and baked over an open fire. Similarly, the Comanche were known to beat sugarberry fruits to a pulp, mix this pulp with fat, roll the mixture into balls and roast them over a fire. The Apache, Chiricahua, and Mescalero not only ate hackberries fresh, but also made them into jelly and dried cakes. The Dakota used dried hackberry fruits to make a powdered condiment used to season meat. The Meskwaki made porridge out of ground berries. The Pawnee made a food by finely pounding hackberries into a powder that they mixed with fat and parched corn (Moerman 1998: 147). Try making Hackberry Jam, Hackberry Sauce, or Hackberry Bread (Niethammer 1974: 72-74).

Other Uses

Parts of the sugarberry and hackberry trees have been used in the production of drugs, to make various craft items, and used for firewood. The Houma used sugarberry bark to make a decoction for sore throats and a compound decoction mixed with powdered shells to treat venereal disease. The Iroquois took decoctions of hackberries to regulate menses. The Papago used netleaf hackberry bark to make sandals, while the Navajo boiled the leaves and branches into a dark brown or red dye used for wool (Moerman 1998: 147).


Angier, Bradford
[2008] 1974 Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. Brockman, C. Frank, and Rebecca A. Merrilees 2001 Trees of North America : a field guide to the major native and introduced species north of Mexico. Rev. and updated ed. New York: St. Martin's Press. Hodgson, Wendy C.
2001 Food plants of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press. Niethammer, Carolyn J.
1974 American Indian food and lore. New York: Collier Books.