Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Hackberry
Nature Bulletin No. 63   April 27, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation

The hackberry is the "unknown" tree. Most people never heard of it many mistake it for an elm, which it resembles. However, it has a distinctive bark, usually ashy gray, with rough warts and ridges. On many hackberries, mostly near the tips of the branches, there will be thick clusters of small twigs, resembling mistletoe from a distance, called "witches' brooms".

These are not a natural growth, as many think, but are caused by a fungous infection. They do not hurt the tree seriously nor detract from its appearance, and more hackberries should be planted as ornamental shade trees instead of elms. They are hardy, grow well even in unfavorable conditions of soil and moisture, and are resistant to diseases and insect pests. Our elms, on the other hand, are dying by the hundreds in some localities -- in the east from Dutch elm disease; in the middle west from a virus disease for which no cure has been found.

Although widely scattered over the United States, the hackberry seldom occurs in quantity. Seldom are there more than a few in one place. In Cook County it is fairly common along the DesPlaines River and the North Branch of the Chicago River. The wood is not strong nor durable enough to have much commercial value. However, it does take a good polish and is excellent for carving.

The tree has quite a food value for wildlife. It is also known as the sugarberry because it bears quantities of dark-purple cherry-like fruit which ripen in the fall and hang on all winter. There is a thin layer of sweet orange flesh over a large seed and they are eaten by many birds, squirrels and small rodents.

Several years ago, in some caves near Peking, China, scientists discovered skeletons of a race of men estimated to have lived 500,000 years ago, With them, supposedly from a winter store of food, were found bushels and bushels of hackberry seeds.

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