Street Tough

This survivor can handle the urban jungle.

Illustration by Adam Larkum

A SOLID WORKHORSE OF A TREE, the hackberry is a North American native that’s resilient, adaptable, and wildlife friendly. It can grow as tall as 100 feet and live for decades. The tree offers shade in summer, can be planted for windbreaks, and can grow deep roots good for erosion control.

Yet for all that, the hackberry seems seriously wanting for a vocal fan club. The tree’s name, let’s face it, rings more of something your cat gags up than inspiration for an ode. Its critics, which aren’t hard to find, are quick to note its shortcomings, from lackluster fall color to the readiness with which its fruit will sprout a small forest of seedlings, to being prone to unsightly growths of leaf galls and witches’ broom. And then there is this withering zinger, from a Texas arborist: “prone to heavy infestations of mistletoe.”

Well, I mean, touché.

Even the hackberry’s advocates can seem hard-pressed to render fulsome praise. The tree’s most oft-noted attribute appears to be neither its beauty nor its charms, but rather its ability to withstand a litany of abuses and go on growing. “A survivor.” “Versatile.” “Thrives without pampering.”

And in naming the hackberry its “urban tree of the year” in 2020, the Society of Municipal Arborists pointed out just that stolid virtue, calling the tree “humble and hardworking” and an “underestimated contributor to many an urban forest.”

“It’s not a very exciting tree,” acknowledges Jay Banks, an urban forester for Fairfax County, “but you can count on it. It’s going to be a tough tree when the going gets tough.”

And if it doesn’t burst forth in a giddy display of spring blooms, if it’s not celebrated for its wood nor sought out for its autumn glory, should the measure of a tree only be how obligingly it serves our expectations? Why not consider how well it does the work of being itself?

In terms of visual appeal, it is easily recognized by its interesting ridged bark, often referred to as “corky” (or, less appealingly, “warty”). From its deep, erosion-controlling roots to its leafy crown, the hackberry is also something of an ecosystem unto itself. It is a shelter for birds, of course, and stands of the trees can offer cover for deer and small mammals. It plays host to several species of butterfly, including the hackberry emperor and the question mark (the butterfly, not the punctuation symbol).

Several species of gall insects lay their eggs on the underside of leaves, and when the nymphs emerge and begin feeding on the leaves, the leaves in turn muster a defense in the form of “nipple galls”—small, round growths that look somewhat like plastic beads—that surround and encase the feeding nymphs. While you can debate the visual aesthetics of a hackberry sprouting a bumper crop of galls, generally they don’t actually harm the tree, and both the adult and nymph insects are food for resident and migrating birds.

“It’s not a very exciting tree, but you can count on it. It’s going to be a tough tree when the going gets tough.”

—Jay Banks, urban forester

And speaking of food, the hackberry’s fruit (despite the name, it’s technically a “drupe”—a fleshy fruit with a single seed, like a cherry—and not a berry) provides a bounty for birds and other wildlife, persisting on the tree through winter. People can eat the fruit, too; there are recipes online for hackberry jam and hackberry milk, or you can just eat the drupes, seed and all, straight off the tree.

And then of course there is the tree’s noted hardiness, which brings us to that “urban tree of the year” designation. “Humble and hardworking” might sound like faint praise, but have you ever paused to really consider what an urban tree has to put up with?

Jay Banks certainly has, and if his manner suggests a certain world-weariness, that might come of a career spent trying to convince developers and other landowners that trees are living organisms and not incidental design features, and that, no, you can’t plant that tree in a four-by-four square in the pavement and expect it to grow 40 feet tall. “Managing people’s expectations of trees,” is how he describes his job.

“There is no tree that genetically evolved over time to be planted next to pavement,” Banks points out. And so, he says, the next best thing is finding a tree that can take what the city can dish out.

Enter the hackberry.

Pollution. Drought. Neglect. Flooding rains. The cold of a Toronto winter and the sweltering heat of a Virginia summer. Inconsistent light. Wayward automobiles. “Missing cat” signs thumbtacked to its trunk and territorial dogs watering its roots. “It’s very urban tough,” says Banks. “It does go with the punches.”

So if you want to call the hackberry a survivor, maybe that isn’t just rough praise. Maybe it’s a distinction of note.

This article originally appeared in the June 2021 issue.

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