Only the ripe fruit in the husk is edible

Physalis: Tomato’s Wild Cousin

I discovered ground cherries quite by accident.

Ground Cherry, P. walteri & P. viscosa

It was back in the last century. I raided a particular field annually for smilax tips and noticed the ground cherries in blossom. That prompted me to returned later in the season to collect them. Unfortunately that field is now a residential neighborhood. While ground cherries are a common plant one has to look for them. They blend in well and don’t announce themselves. Even their blossoms are sotto voce. The blossoms like to look down and this one, right,  had to be coaxed into a picture.

Ground cherries, locally Physalis walteri, (FEE-sa-lis wall-TEER-ee) are  related to tomatoes and tomatillos. Physalis means “bladder” referring to the enclosed fruit.  The Physalis is found in the Old World as well as the New World. There are nine species in here in Florida and you would be hard pressed to tell some of them apart. The local Indians used them interchangeably.

Don't eat them if they are bitter

Don’t eat them if they are really bitter

After discovering my local ground cherry inland I then noticed some on the east coast of Florida. They looked similar (both had blossoms with and without purple throats.)  Inland they were P. walteri, and on the coast P. viscosa. I had two different books of Florida wild flowers with good descriptions. Yet I could not tell these two species apart, even after taking into account the blossom variation. I went to a third book and found out why. They are the same species. One book called it P. walteri and did not mention any other names, and the other book called it P. viscosa again also did not include any other names. Sometimes you want to strangle botanists…

That  would mean Physalis viscosa means “sticky bladder” and P. walteri means “Walter’s Bladder.” Who “Walter” was I do not know but many such plants are often named for  Thomas Walter, an 18th century South Carolina botanist. Another ground cherry I’ve found tasty is the Coastal Ground Cherry (Physalis angustifolia) that I have found on the west coast of Florida.


Not all blossoms have a ruby throat

The fruit is edible raw or cooked, as in pies or preserves. The fruit can fall from the plant before it is ripe. That usually takes a week or two or more until the husk has dried and the fruit a golden yellow to orange. Each fruit is wrapped in a husk that is NOT edible. The fruit will store several weeks if left in the husk.  Unripe fruit — light green — is toxic.  Ripe fruits are light to golden yellow. If any ripe fruit has a bitter aftertaste should be cooked first. If it is still bitter after cooking, don’t eat it. A wild species that takes to home gardening very well is Physalis angulata, the Cutleaf Ground Cherry. It’s tall and prolific under cultivation.

P. walteri/ P. viscosa

Linguistically the plant has had quite a diverse journey with nearly every country and language having its own (or several) names for the encased fruit. The ancient Greeks used halikakabon and pheesalis (bladder and swelling) the latter was translated into Dead Latin as visicaria. The Italians used halicacabo uolgare and the French halicacabon comun, both of which mean “common bladder.”  In Italy they are now called Coralli (coral) and Palloncini (balloons.) Farther north they were called winter chirir ((winter cherry) Judenkirsen (Jew’s Cherry) and Schlutten (ground cherry in 1542 German) They were also called Judendocken (Jew’s bundle) Judenhutlin (a variation of Jew’s hat) and that got mangled into the English Jerusalem Cherry, which is still used. The Aztecs called it tomatl (source for the words tomato and tomatillo.) In Hawaii it is called Poha.

Coastl Ground Cherry

Coastal Ground Cherry, Physalis angustifolia

Other names used include Alkekengi (which is cultivated and perhaps the only one you don’t eat)  Barbados Gooseberry, cherry tomato, Chinese Lantern, husk tomato, Japanese Lantern, strawberry tomato, tomatillo, wild cherry, winter cherry and Cape Gooseberry. Several other Physalis fruits have been used for food: P. ixocarpa, P. fendleri, P. heterophylla, P. lanceoleta, P. longifolia, P. neomexicana, P. pruinosa, P. pubescens, P. turbinata, P. virginiana, and P. angulata , the latter which is also found locally, growing to more than two feet tall and wide.

Fruit photos by Sybaritica.

 Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

Physalis angulata

IDENTIFICATION: P. walteri/P.viscosa: Fruit is a yellowish sticky berry that does not fill the husk, solitary growing from the leaf’s axil. Leaves are entire or wavy and angled, sometimes toothed. Flowers are yellow with dark centers, purplish antlers, or no dark centers. Entire plant covered with fine hairs, entire plant sometimes appears gray. All the P. angulatas I’ve seen had toothy leaves like the photo at left and strong branching stems.

TIME OF YEAR: Blossoms in late spring fruits towards fall, however in Florida it can have two seasons, summer and fall.

ENVIRONMENT: Old fields, sunny woods, bordering streams, cultivated fields, waste ground, railroads, road sides; full sun to some shade. Low growing, often overlooked. It likes water and humidity.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: When ripe raw or cooked like any fruit, pectin needs to be added to make jelly or jam.  Species with a bitter after taste are better cooked. If bitter after cooking do not eat.  Some foraging books say the fruit does not ripen on the plants but I have found and eaten many that were. More so, like a tomato while it will ripen off the plant it will not improve in sweetness off the plant. Only ripening on the plant accomplishes that.


The Memorial Poppy, Papaver rhoeas

(Yes, I am a veteran. Thus on this Memorial Day let us think of friends and relatives and everyone’s loved ones who did not come home alive. More than a century ago the Poppy became that reminder.

Several plants have relatives whose reputations are difficult to live down. The Natal Plum is one. Related to the Oleander the delicious plum suffers from its deadly kin’s reputation. The Corn Poppy shares a similar fate. Mention poppies today and folks think opium. Mention poppies 90 years ago and people thought World War I. The Corn Poppy is the memorial flower of veterans. Silk and paper poppies are handed out for donations to veteran causes and worn on Memorial Day. The practice began with a poem.

Col. John McCrae

Canadian John McCrae was a poet who was also a surgeon and medical officer on the front lines. Sitting in an ambulance on 3 May 1915, he wrote the poem “In Flanders Field” the day after personally conducting a burial service for a friend, Alexis Helmer. At the service McCrae mentioned the poppies. After writing the poem with a pencil stub he showed it to a couple of soldiers then reportedly tossed the poem away but it was recovered by those who read the first draft. After revisions and one rejection by The Spectator it was published 8 December 1915 in Punch Magazine. The poem begins with: In Flanders fields the poppies grow.* It became the most quoted poem of the era. In 1918 an American Young Womans’ Christian Association worker (and college teacher) Moina Belle Michael was attending a YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference in New York City. She saw a copy of the Ladies Home Journal with the poem in it with its ascending illustration (below left.) Though she had read the poem many times she was struck by accompanying artwork. In her autobiography, ”The Miracle Flower, The Story of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy” written in 1941 on the eve of World War II, she wrote:

Moina Michael, the Poppy Lady

“I read the poem, which I had read many times previously, and studied its graphic picturization. The last verse transfixed me — ‘To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die, we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields’. This was for me a full spiritual experience. It seemed as though the silent voices again were vocal, whispering, in sighs of anxiety unto anguish, ‘To you from failing hands we throw the Torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders Fields’. Alone, again, in a high moment of white resolve I pledged to KEEP THE FAITH and always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance and the emblem of ‘keeping the faith with all who died’. In hectic times as were those times, great emotional impacts may be obliterated by succeeding greater ones. So I felt impelled to make note of my pledge. I reached for a used yellow envelope, turned the blank side up and hastily scribbled my pledge to keep the faith with all who died.”

The artwork that move Michael to start wearing the poppy

So moved Michael went out that afternoon and managed to find some artificial poppies and handed out 25 keeping one herself. The tradition was born. Later Michael wrote a poem herself,  “We Shall Keep The Faith.” It had the verse: We cherish too, the poppy red, that grows on fields where valor led, It seems to signal to the skies, that blood of heroes never dies.”

In 1920 Anna E. Guerin, another YWCA secretary visiting from France, learned of the custom while attending an American Legion convention which was supporting the sale of poppies. Guerin decided when she returned home to hand-make the poppies and raise money to benefit orphans and widows of the war. It was she who sent a

The “Memorial Poppy” Stamp, 1948

delegation of French widows to visit British Field Marshal and former Commander-in-Chief Douglas Haig in 1921. They had poppies with them and suggested selling them to raise money for the injured and unemployed veterans. Haig, who by then was 1st Earl Haig, lent his support to the cause and himself set up the Haig Fund that still supports veterans. The practice was firmly established when several countries officially recognized the veterans’ poppy. To this day, paper poppies are assembled by needy and disabled veterans in hospitals and raise millions of dollars each year. But why the Corn Poppy? To answer that you have to know somethings about the species.

A Field of Poppies in Western Crete

Poppies thrive on disturbed ground and can tolerate high amounts of lime. The plant also produces millions of seeds. The seeds can lie dormant in the ground for years until disturbed. The shelling and the trenching of the war brought them out of slumber. More so they grew where nothing else would grow, the lime-rich blasted ground of no man’s land and make-shift graves. The bright red poppies reaching out of blood-soaked ground made a lasting impression upon the generation.

Green Deane in Athens with Poppies

Green Deane, then 50,  in Athens with Poppies near the Acropolis.

For a plant with such a notorious relative the Corn Poppy has many uses. Young leaves are cooked and used like spinach, or raw as flavoring in soups and salads. The petals are used to make a red syrup used in soups or for coloring. The seeds can be used in cakes, bread, rolls, or  pressed for their oil which is an excellent substitute for olive oil. Who as a child (or older) played with the poppy seeds falling off a roll? The rosette of basal leaves before the plant flowers is excellent raw as well. The unripe ovaries are also edible raw.

Poppy with petals folded back

Like its genus mates the corn poppy has a white sap but no particular hallucinogenic qualities. It got the name “corn poppy” from a time when all agricultural grains — oats, wheat et cetera —  were generally called corn. The flower grew in the disturbed ground of “corn” fields. As for the botanical name Papaver (Pap-PAY-ver) is Dead Latin for milk, in reference to its sap. Rhoeas (ROH-ee-as) is Latin bastardized Greek for red, referring to the color of the blossom. Poppy is an Old English variation of Papaver. Other common names include Flanders Poppy, California Red Poppy, and Shirley Poppy.

Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile: Corn Poppy

Poppy Syrup

IDENTIFICATION: Papaver rhoesa: Stems from a large tap root, white to yellow sap, many stems, branching, green with some purple at the base; leaves alternating, lower leaves with stems, upper leaves without stems, serrated teeth, small hairs with glandular base; Flowers have four to six petals, scarlet with a black splotch (can be white) 1.5 to 3 inches wide, many stamens exceeding the pistil, anthers yellow grown.

The Buddy Poppy

TIME OF YEAR: May to October

ENVIRONMENT: Waste ground or disturbed ground, neither hot weather or cold weather.

METHOD OF PREPARATION:  Young leaves cooked, or raw in salads; petals edible, seeds edible.

* The original poem said “where poppies blow” but it was changed to where poppies grow with both words being used. The debate on how the first line should end continues. Here is the first published version:



Vaccinium myrsinites DSC_0362

Vaccinium darrowii is redder than Vaccinium myrsinites

Vacciniums: Am I Blue?

Blueberrying was a family tradition. The only debate was did you pick them clean, or did you pick leaves, bugs and all then clean the haul later? My mother preferred the clean method, so clean it was. Why did she prefer the clean-picking method? Because as a child she and her mother visited a friend who had just finished picking a lot of blueberries. My mother was asked if she wanted some, she said yes a big bowl. The bowl of blueberries were delivered then milk poured on them. That caused all the twigs, leaves and bugs to float to the surface making the berries not possible to eat. We picked clean. 

vector-of-a-cartoon-man-about-to-whack-a-fly-on-his-nose-coloring-page-outline-by-ron-leishman-14178My most enduring memory, however, was when I was 14 and had just started high school. I was picking away late one season on a Sunday afternoon when a bee came up and stung me right on the end of my nose. Yes, it did swell up. Yes, I did look ridiculous.  Yes, I was forced to go to school the next day, putting Cyrano de Bergerac to shame.

We berried in two very different areas with two very different kind of blueberries. Low-bush blueberries were extremely common, covering huge fields, hundreds of acres. The fields were burned every year to ensure a good crop of blueberries, which prefers poor acid soil and ashes. In late summer rows were marked by string. Pickers with hand rakes would come in and strip a field in a couple of days. They always focused on the productive center of the field, leaving the edges. We used to raid those edges on the weekend, collecting quarts of ignored fruit. But, there were other blueberries as well.

High on a ridge, west of the Libby Road where it intersects with the Witcher Road, in Pownal Maine, there’s a north south granite ledge showing here and there. On that ledge were the best specimens of high-bush blueberries I’ve ever seen. Tall shrubs, they were six to eight feet tall and loaded with large, sweet blueberries. Picking was fast, if there weren’t bears around, which brings me to a short story about my Great Aunt Myrt, born in the 1880’s. She loved blueberries.

Great Aunt Myrtie May Putney circa 1900

Great Aunt Myrtie May Putney circa 1900

Like all eight of her siblings born in the late 1800s, Myrt caught scarlet fever when she was in her teens and as a consequence was nearly stone deaf. That presented some problem, of course, but life went on. One day she was out with other members of the family picking blueberries. While they were picking a bear came along and started eating the berries right next to Myrt. Everyone but Myrt apparently saw the bear and moved away. Myrt kept right on picking. As you may imagine, the mostly deaf members of the family trying to get Myrt’s attention by yelling did not work nor did it scare the bear. Myrt was focused on filling her berry bucket. When her bucket was finally full she left the patch and joined the others.

“Didn’t you see that bear?” my grandfather shouted? “Yes,” said Myrt, shouting back, “but I wasn’t going to let that damned bear have my blueberries.” Myrt, a feisty, tall, good-looking woman, lived into her 90s. No doubt the healthful blueberries helped.

When picking off high bush blueberries it was not unusual to come home with a washtub full of them. You could eat fistfuls of blueberries and still have gallons left. In fact, the only way we ever ate them were either fresh or in muffins. Gallons of blueberries in the frig was a good feeling. The quantities of blueberries hereabouts are more modest, and sporadic.

Vaccinium myrsinites, dwarf blueberry.

Vaccinium myrsinites, dwarf blueberry.

The most common blueberry locally where I live now is Vaccinium myrsinites. There are no fields of them or even large patches that I’ve ever seen, always just a few short bushes here and there, usually around 18 inches high though they can get to three feet.  Another local is the Vaccinium stamineum, Deerberry. It’s taste varies from tart to sweet. Deerberry is the easiest of all the blueberries to identify with leaves are egg-shaped and whitish underneath. The fruit can be green to deep ruby when ripe. 

The high bush blueberry of my youth, Vaccinium corymbosum doesn’t quite get to Florida, or if so one foot across the state line. There is, however, a high-bush blueberry in Florida that grows to 20 feet or more, the Sparkleberry, aka Farkleberry, Vaccinium arboreum. It is edible but not too palatable. The bottom of its leaves have a net of gold-colored veins.

As you may infer, numerous birds and mammals like the blueberries. Among the creatures that like them are grouse, partridge, quail, robins, blackbirds, thrushes,  chipmunks, deer, elk, rabbit and bear.  Deer are quite fond of the leaves, a point not lost on hunters. Medicinally, decoctions of the leaves have been used for sore throats and diarrhea but if too strong can be toxic.

The experts tell us there are no toxic crown berries.

The experts tell us there are no toxic five-point crown berries.

Vaccinium myrsinites is said vak-SIN-ee-um  mur-sin-EYE-teez. Myrsinites is from Greek and means looking like the myrtle. What vaccinium means is more of a debate. One idea is that it goes back to a prehistoric European language called Thraco Pelagian, a precursor to Greek. A competing idea is that it is from the Latin word “vacca” meaning cow (frankly, both could be right since half of Latin is bastardized Greek, and the other half is misappropriated Etruscan.)  The cow berry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea was common where plant namer Linnaeus was born, so…. we’ll never know. No doubt blueberries have been eaten for thousands of years and can be found in all lands circling the north pole then south. The oldest find is from a Bronze-Age grave in Denmark, a few thousand years ago. Two-hundred year old frozen blueberries have also been found in Northern Canada.  In the Heath family, all Vacciniums — all 450 or so species — have a five-pointed, star-shaped calyx that remains on the fruit. Some native Americans believed that in times of starvation “the Great Spirit sent the star berries down from the night of heaven to feed the children.”

If you have black blueberries with large leaves you may have huckleberries…. read that article here.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: V. myrsinites is a small shrub, one to three feet, leaves alternate, ovate to elliptic, to 3/4 of an inch long, sometimes with fine, sharp teeth and spine-tipped. Leathery. Young grayish foliage often purple tinged. Flowers red or red-purple, in small compact clusters, bell-shaped, berries blue or blackish, round. V. darowii looks similar but the base of the blossom is redder as are the tips of the blossoms. 

TIME OF YEAR: Blooms in late May, fruit in the summer, June to August depending on area

ENVIRONMENT: A small bush with small fingernail sized leaves in saw palmetto prairies and pine flat woods

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Uses nearly too numerous to mention, jelly to wine, pies to confit, full of antioxidants.

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Basswood leaves and bracts soon to be blossoming. Photo by Green Deane

Tilia americana: Forest Fast Food

My first recollection of basswood was not on the supper table but rather helping my step-father make pipes.

Pipe maker Robert Hartley Jordan

First we’d find a nice piece of applewood for the bowl; take the bark off then boil the bowl wood for a couple of hours on (of all things) the wood stove. That “drove” the sap out so when it dried or was used it wouldn’t crack. After the bowl was shaped, sanded and drilled a stem was needed. That’s when we’d go find a basswood sapling of just the right size to make a stem. At that young age it’s easy to run a wire through the core and ream out the pith. That was fitted to the bowl and the pipe was done except for polishing. Dad would rub the sides of his nose with the finished bowl to give it a shine. Oil glands on our nose apparently are perfect for that. I still have one or two of those pipes we made from some 60 years ago.

The bract and seed arrangement are unmistakable. Photo by Green Deane

It was not unusual that we turned to the Basswood for utilitarian uses rather than food. Even among the native Indians only one tribe — the Ojibwa — was known to eat parts of the Basswood. Others may have but there is no record of it. Indeed, modern foragers may actually consume more of the tree than the Natives did. However, the tree was a major source of fiber for the Indians and that’s where the  common name, Basswood, comes from.“Bass” is a corruption of “bast” which is a type of fiber. The Indians soaked the bark for two to four weeks to loosen long fibers. They used the fibers for many of their needs: Bags, baskets, belts, fishnets, house mats, snowshoe netting, ropes, sewing thread and even suturing wounds. It was used where a lot of fiber strength was not needed. The Ojibwa ate the young buds raw or cooked as greens and they used the sweet sap, boiling it down to a syrup. Fortunately, there is more to be had.

Bass wood leaves petioles, tongue and fruit

Besides the buds the young leaves are a prime “wild green” of the forest. Young shiny shoots are also tasty. Edible raw or cooked you can make a salad using the leaves as the main ingredient like lettuce. Cooked they lose flavor and shrink in size considerably. The cambium, between the outer bark and the wood, in spring time, is moist and tastes of cucumber. It’s good for soups or when dried can be powdered and used for bread. You can also eat it raw off the tree, the least amount of work for the nutrition and flavor. However, don’t destroy the tree for it. Take vertical pieces. 

While the flowers are edible raw or cooked and a tea can be made from them. Two tablespoons per cup. They  also produce a lot of nectar creating high-quality honey. For that Basswood is sometimes called the “Bee Tree.”  The tree also has a small nut, more like a seed. Fill one pocket with them as you wander through the woods, crack ’em with your teeth and spit out the shell.  The tree can produce seeds when as young as eight years and continue to 100. Past 120 years old the tree starts to get a lot of “cavities” and becomes home to a many woodland creatures, notably porcupines and raccoons. Basswoods can live up to about 200 years old.

As you would guess, denizens of the forest like the Basswood as well. Whitetail deer, rabbits, mice, voles, squirrels, chipmunks and foxes snack on the tree, as do many species of song and game birds including quail.  Some voles, however, girdle the tree, killing it.

One particular habit of the Basswood is to produce sprouts, especially after the main tree dies. Often you will find a clump of basswood sprouts of varying sizes, many of which get large enough to harvest. Basswood is valued for its wood which is soft, light and easily worked wood, particularly for turned items and hand carving. Natives made face masks out of it. Before synthetics it was was the material of choice for prosthetic limbs. It’s also been used to make boxes, toys, woodenware, drawing boards, veneer, venetian blinds, plywood and pulp. The Iroquois even used the bark as an emergency bandage for wounds.

Large tongue-like bracts on Basswood blossom

One problem with the Basswood is what to call it. It has multiple common and scientific names. Experts can’t agree if there is one species with variations or several species, though they are all edible. While some call the Basswood that grows in Florida Tilia floridana (TILL-ee-uh flo-re-DANE-nah) the current name de jour is Tilia americana (a-mair-ee-KAY-na) . Tilia comes from the Greek word “ptilon” meaning wing, referring to the large winglike bracts of the flower cluster. Some think they look more like tongues than wings. Americana means of America and floridana of Florida. As for common names, particularly in Europe, the Basswood is called the Linden tree.  That name comes from the Old English word of “linde.” It’s been called that for some 1300 years. So, where did “linde” come from? That’s a bit more … sticky.

Folks of yore somehow noticed that when a bird “deposits” a mistletoe seed the seed sticks to the tree. That is how mistletoe, a parasite, gets from tree to tree. So they used mistletoe (or holly) to make a glue to put on tree limbs to catch small birds. That was called birdlime, lime coming from the Latin word for mud, limus, so less poetically, bird mud. So limus became lime which became lime+en which became by 700 AD linde which then became linden. Many Brits today call the Basswood the lime tree. (The citrus “lime” came from the Arabic limah.)  Lime, in the sense of mud, is still with us today. When we mark a field for sports it is called liming the field.

Personally, I like the young leaves right off the tree when they are about the size of your thumb nail. On one hike through Spring Hammock in Seminole County a Basswood tree had toppled over. Not uncommon in Florida. Weeks earlier it was upright. But this was prime leafing out season and though toppled it was putting on leaves and I ate my fill. Mild, slightly sweet, tender. Well worth looking for. And one more thing: A paste made from the seeds and flowers of the Basswood tree is a good substitute for chocolate.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile


Tall tree to 100 feet, round uniform crown. Leaves alternating, distinctly heart shaped and strongly toothed. Creamy, five-petaled flowers in small clusters,. unique tongue-like light-colored bract with each flower cluster. No other tree in North America has such an arrangement. Gray bark, furrowed with flat ridges.


Spring in Florida, early or mid summer farther north.


Deep, well-drained soil. In Florida that is close to fresh water, lakes and streams


Season new young leaves, smaller than mature leaves, lighter in color and shiny. Raw or cooked. Young shiny shoots, raw or cooked. The buds raw or cooked, a bit mucilaginous. Cambium raw or cooked, seeds raw or cooked though usually eaten raw on the trail. Sap boiled down to sugar.

Sugarberries ripen from green to burnt orange. Photo by Green deane

 Sugarberries are Hackberries with a Southern Accent

Sugarberries like to be near water and that’s why it caught my eye as I coasted by: It was growing on top of a dry hill.

Part of my approach to plants is to answer the questions raised by I.T.E.M., Identification, Time of year, Environment, and Method of Preparation. If you can’t satisfactorily answer them all then you might have the wrong plant. This surgarberry was environmentally out of place.  I had seen such a thing once before with a sugarberry and you have to figure out why. It is simply good form to do so, and safe foraging.

Sugarberries — Celtis laevigata  (SELL-tiss lee-vih-GAY-tuh )– like moisture. You’ll often find a stand of them near rivers. The last time I found a stand out of place they were growing near an irrigation canal.  This time there was no canal. The Sugarberry was struggling with two Black Cherries for one spot, and winning. There was a swale nearby but on the top of the hill it was more for aesthetic reasons than practical. Then I saw the lawn irrigation head nearby. The tree was near a large, long-term business and daily watering was enough to make it think it was living in a wetter spot. Probably a bird dropped a seed while visiting a young cherry and the rest is botanical history.

Sugarberries, called hackberries outside of the South, were prized among people everywhere, New World and Old, though I don’t see how. They are big trees that can grow to 100 feet. The berries are small, sparse, and usually way out of reach. They have been praised since ancient times. Homer, the 900 BCE blind poet of ancient stories that shaped the Greek culture, spoke of them. He said one taste of the hackberry in a foreign land was enough to make a man never want go home again. Honestly, that’s an exaggeration. They are sweet and delicious but a huge amount of work would be involved to get even a cup of  them. Perhaps natives everywhere trimmed the tree short and husbanded it.

Sugarberry leaves have three main veins at the base. Photo by Green Deane

The berry is just about the same size as chokecherry but the stone is larger. Inside the stone is a kernel. The pulp around the stone is about 10 times thicker than the pulp on a cabbage palm berry which is paint thin, so think ten layers of paint… read not a lot. This is a trail side nibble when in reach. However, the Native Americans had a different idea. Some would grind up the entire berry, stone, kernel and all, and make a paste out of it, either to bake in a fire or to add with fat and parched corn to make a gruel. Others removed the pulp, eating that separately. Then they lightly dried the kernel and cracked it. The inner kernel was considered a delicacy and the outer shell was ground up and used as a spice, usually on meat. The stone can be eaten raw and they also store well in oil. The entire berry is high in calcium, can be up to 20% protein, and has a good amount of phosphorus as well. It also has a high amount of fat and fiber.

Sugarberries have warty bark

How the tree got its name is a bit of a story. Only in the South are they called Sugarberries. Elsewhere they are Hackberries. That word came via Scottish from the names of some northern Scandinavia cherry trees that mean hag, or old woman.  How the name of cherry trees got to be associated with the Celtis is anyone guess, though the fruit do resemble choke cherries and the tree is considered by some to be a ‘witch” tree. My guess is because the bark of the species is usually warty in patches it might have reminded folk of an old face in olden times. That warty bark is one of its identifying characteristics (and in the southwest of North America some hackberries also have thorns.) Don’t confuse the Sugarberry with the Toothache Tree which has very aromatic, medicine-smelling leaves and thorns.  The Sugarberry does not.

Celtis is the ancient Greek name for a lotus with sweet berries, and was used by Pliny. Laevigata means smooth, and most of the sugarberry’s bark is smooth but there are always tell-tale corky warts, without thorns.  It is interesting that English speakers would refer to the tree as the Sugarberry and the Greeks, a world and language away, call their tree, the C. australis, the Honeyberry. Clearly the dry sweetness impresses people.

While the C. laevigata is the common species in the lower half of the United States, there are several species, many of them edible, and found throughout North American and the world. Check out the species nearest you.  Most hackberries like highlands, the sugarberry the low lands. Oh, It is a common host for mistletoe, is a good candidate for bonsai, and like the black walnut its leaf litter discourage growth of other plants.

And at Emerson Point Preserve, Palmetto, Fl.,  there is a “sugarberry” with teeth on the leaves. Current guess is that it is a “Japanese Sugarberry.” 

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Leaves  alternate along the stem, medium to dark green, 2 to 4″ twice as long as wide, oval,  serrated only on upper half of leaf,  asymmetrical (lop-sided) three prominent veins, leaf spots and galls common, wigs zig-zaggy. Leaves turn yellow in the fall. Flowers greenish-yellow in spring. Fruit a green berry turning to orange, red or dark purple. Branches droop. Gray bark has patches of corky warts.

TIME OF YEAR: Fruits late summer, fall

ENVIRONMENT: Likes full sun and prefers moist rich soil.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Ripe fruit pulp raw or cooked. Stone and inner kernel raw or cooked, stone shell ground up as seasoning, kernel roasted as a delicacy, entire berry pulp and seed crushed and cooked.