When my mother moved to her house on the edge of the Hill Country in San Antonio, Texas, she named it “Celtis House,” for it’s surrounded by Celtis laevigata or hackberry trees.
Folks around here often call hackberries “trash trees” because they spread fast and drop brittle branches and sandpapery leaves all over yards. But my mother has a fondness for these scraggly trees and now I do, too. I treasure the way hackberries provide shade, sustain wildlife, and offer little nuggets of color and sweetness in fall and winter.
Plus, these trees can be used to make one of the best wild drinks I’ve ever had: tasty and nutritious hackberry milk.
In Ancient Greece, Celtis was the name for a tree with sweet fruit. The first time you taste a Celtis laevigata (or its cousin, Celtis occidentalis) berry, you might be surprised that it’s not at all juicy like you think a berry ought to be. In fact, the pea-sized berry is rather hard – it’s mostly seed surrounded by a very thin sliver of pulp.
But, oh, that pulp is delightfully sweet, giving the hackberry tree its other nickname: sugarberry. Sugarberries ripen and turn from green to orange to deep red in late summer or fall. They often cling to the branches through the winter, providing food for local and migratory birds like cedar waxwings and mammals like white-tailed deer. Hackberry trees also shelter and host many insects like the hackberry emperor butterfly.
Celtis species are native to every continent except Antarctica, and the relationship between people and hackberries stretches back many thousands of years. The seeds have been found in the cave of Peking Man, making hackberries one of the oldest known foods eaten by our ancestors. In North America, native peoples used the trees for medicine and food, pounding the berries into cakes with corn meal or animal fat.
Hackberries offer more than sweetness, too. The nutritious seeds are full of protein, fiber, and calcium and taste nutty and a slightly oily – a bit like flax seeds, although I think hackberries are much better. I’ve found that the seeds can vary in hardness; sometimes they’re easy to chew up as a snack, and other times you fear you’ll crack a tooth. So rather than eat them by the handful, I like to turn them into a rich, golden-colored milk.
On a drizzly winter day, my mother and I gathered a few handfuls of ripe, red hackberries so that I could experiment with two different milk-making methods for you. The berries are so small that they aren’t the easiest wild food to gather, but just take it slowly and enjoy your time outdoors. Perhaps, like me, you’ll be fortunate enough to be sharing the time with someone you love.
To make milk, all you need are hackberries and water, but there are a couple different ways you can go about it. The easiest way to make raw hackberry milk is to process the berries and water in a high-speed blender; we used my mom’s NutriBullet. Alternatively, you can grind the berries by hand using a mortar and pestle, and then gently heat the mash with water on the stove.
After straining the milk, you can add a sweetener if you like, but I find the natural flavor plenty sweet. The raw version tastes somewhat nutty and brown sugary, while the simmered version tastes more molasses-y and has a slightly thicker texture. I like both. My favorite way to enjoy the hackberry milk is just by itself, though it’s also lovely in a cup of tea, chai, or milk punch. If you make a big enough batch, you can also use the milk in smoothies, custard, rice pudding, or other desserts.
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup hackberries
2 cups water
To make raw hackberry milk:
Combine the hackberries and water in a blender. Blend until the seeds are reduced to the texture of sand. Strain through a nut milk bag or another fine-mesh bag or strainer and squeeze to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
To make cooked hackberry milk:
Pulverize the hackberries using a mortar and pestle. Combine the hackberry mash and the water in a small saucepan. Cover the pan and warm the mixture over low heat (do not boil), stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Strain through a nut milk bag or another fine-mesh bag or strainer and squeeze to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the solids. Store in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
I think hackberry milk is plenty sweet as it is, but if you want, you can add a sweetener such as maple syrup, honey, or date syrup.