Netleaf Hackberry, Desert Hackberry, Sugar Berry

Celtis Spp.
Ulmaceae (Elm Family)

Three species of hackberry grow in the South Texas Plains. Each produces an edible fruit and strong, flexible wood utilized by the native populations. The most widespread of these three species is the small desert hackberry (Celtis pallida Torr.), also known as granjeño or spiny hackberry . It is a common upland shrub, especially in the central section of the South Texas Plains, where it is co-dominant with mesquite. The other two trees, sugarberry (Celtis laevigata Willd.) and netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata Torr.) grow along fence lines and roadsides but the tallest examples usually are confined to river or creek courses and better-watered, low lying areas of the South Texas Plains.

Each tree produces a slightly different fruit. The desert hackberry fruit is a small, fleshy drupe with a crunchy, calcareous stone (seed). They are bright orange, juicy, and tart, if you don't mind the crunchy center. Both netleaf hackberry and sugarberry produce a reddish-to-black fruit with a smaller, mealy flesh wrapped around the calcareous stone. The sugarberry fruit is somewhat sweeter and fleshier than the netleaf hackberry (Figures 4 and 5).

Archeological Occurrences. Hackberry seeds preserve well in most soils, and it is difficult to tell if seeds from archeological sites are relatively recent and part of the natural seed rain or are prehistoric in origin and were brought in by native peoples. However, discoveries in certain contexts such as caves and caches, and human coprolites (dried feces) confirm a long history of human use. Desert hackberry seeds were recovered by the thousands from Hinds Cave, and are clearly visible in dozens of rockshelter sites in the Lower Pecos (Dering 1979; Irving 1966). A single hackberry seed was noted in the limited plant collections made from the Kyle Shelter, a Late Prehistoric Toyah Phase site (Jelks 1962). Just north of the South Texas Plains, hackberry seeds were recovered from the Vargas site in Edwards County (Quigg et al. 2005).

A single occurrence of possible hackberry seed in the deposits of the Hinojosa site, a Late Prehistoric Toyah Phase site in Jim Wells County, is the only direct evidence we have for eating this fruit in the South Texas Plains (Black 1986). Archeologists have identified hackberry wood in samples from the Hinojosa site as well as two sites in Maverick County near Eagle Pass (Black 1986; Dering 2005). Much more archeological research needs to be completed in the region.

Food. Hackberry fruits are rich in sugar and calcium. When pounded into a pulp, they can be easily dried or mixed with other foods. Desert hackberry fruit is quite nutritious, containing up to 20% crude protein, as well as phosphorous, and calcium (Everitt and Alaniz 1981).

I have not yet located specific references to the use of hackberry by natives from the South Texas Plains; all of the following references are from groups in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The Onavas Pima and the Seri consumed the fresh fruits of desert hackberry (Felger and Moser 1991; Pennington 1980). There is no record of processing desert hackberry fruits into a storable form, or including it in other food preparations. The fruit usually ripens in late summer, early fall.

In contrast to desert hackberry, most of the uses for sugarberry or netleaf hackberry usually involve some processing. Most of the groups using this fruit pounded it, which infers the use of a mortar and pestle. They often mixed the resulting mush with water or with other meats or plant foods such as parched corn. These groups include the Comanche, Yavapai, Chiricahua or Mescalero Apache. Several Plains Indians living north of Texas, including the Kiowa, Pawnee, and Dakota, processed another closely realated species, the common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) in the same manner (Castetter and Opler 1936; Gifford 1936; Gilmore 1977). The Comanche beat sugarberry fruit into a pulp, rolled it into balls with some fat, and roasted the resulting mix over a fire (Carlson et al. 1942). The Chiricahua and Mescalero and the Dakota dried the fruit for future use (Castetter and Opler; Gilmore 1977).

Other Uses. The hard and flexible wood of desert hackberry wood was utilized for various implements. The Seri made cradle boards from the wood. Hackberry wood was also favored for making bows (Felger and Moser 1991). The Navajo boiled leaves and branches of netleaf hackberry to make a reddish/brown dye for wool. The Tewa used hackberry wood for tool handles. The Papago fashioned sandals from the bark of hackberries (Castetter and Underhill 1935; Elmore 1944; Robbins et al. 1916).


Black, Stephen L.
1986 The Clemente and Herminia Hinojosa Site, 41JW8: A Toyah Horizon Campsite in Southern Texas. Center for Archaeological Research, Special Report No. 18. The University of Texas at San Antonio. San Antonio, Texas.

Carlson, Gustav G. and Volney H. Jones
1940 Some Notes on Uses of Plants by the Comanche Indians. Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 25:517-542.

Castetter Edward F., and Morris Opler
1936 The Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache. A. The Use of Plants for Foods, Beverages, and Narcotics. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. III. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(5). Albuquerque.

Castetter Edward F., and Ruth Underhill
1935 The Ethnobiology of the Papago Indians. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. II. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(3). Albuquerque.

Everitt J.H. and M.A. Alaniz
1981. Nutrient Content of Cactus and Woody Plant Fruits Eaten by Wildlife in South Texas. Southwestern Naturalist 26:301-305.

Elmore, F. H.
1944 Ethnobotany of the Navajo. University of New Mexico Bulletin. Monograph Series 1(7). University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque.

Felger, R.S., and Mary B. Moser
People of the Desert and Sea. University of Arizona Press. Tucson.

Gifford, E. W.
1936 Northeastern and Western Yavapai. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnography. 34:247-354.

Gilmore, Melvin R.
1977 Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln. [Reprint of original Thirty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 1919].

Jelks, Edward B.
1962 The Kyle Site: A Stratified Central Texas Aspect Site in Hill County, Texas. Archaeology Series 5. Department of Anthropology, The University of Texas at Austin.

Pennington, Campbell
1980. The Pima Bajo of Central Sonora, Mexico. Vol. I. University of Utah Press. Salt Lake City.

Quigg, J. Michael, J. D. Owens, G.D. Smith, and M. Cody
2005 The Varga Site: A Multicomponent, Stratified Campsite in the Canyonlands of Edwards County, Texas [Draft]. Technical Report No. 35319. TRC, Inc. Austin, Texas.

Vestal, Paul A. and Richard Evans Schultes
1939 The Economic Botany of the Kiowa Indians. Botanical Museum of Harvard University. Cambridge MA.

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photo of hackberry
Desert hackberry shrub, also known as granjeňo or spiny hackberry.
photo of hackberry
A large Sugarberry tree growing along a wall in a south Texas yard.
photo of hackberry
Branch of the sugarberry.
photo of hackberry
Sugarberries, like all hackberry fruits, are rich in sugar and calcium
photo of hackberry
Fruits of the desert hackberry (granjeño) have a small crunchy seed.