The Curious Weed: Foraging on the ranch

Part 1: Desert Hackberry

I am naturally curious about everything. Because I didn’t grow up in anywhere remotely similar to South Texas I can often be found staring at what some Texans refer to as weeds or “trash” plants. Even the common mesquite tree is abhorred by many.  I, on the other hand, admire the massive bull mesquites around our property. Drought tolerant and persevering, they are a symbol of life in South Texas if you ask me. If only the mesquite tree could talk. I would listen.

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Old mature mesquite trees are called “Bull” mesquite. This is probably our favorite Bull Mesquite to photograph on the ranch.  Photo: Kristin Parma

What kind of tree is this? Is this a native flower? Why does the cactus grow that way? How do you think the Native Americans used these?

I have so many unanswered questions. Over the years I have come to identify many wild edible plants on the ranch- prickly pear cactus, black persimmon, agarita, yucca, chili pequin & honey mesquite. I even remember reading that natives ate the fruit from the Tasajillo cactus which grow on our property. The Tasajillo is a long pencil-like cactus with small red fruit hidden among what seems like thousands of thorns. On the ranch we refer to them as the “Jumping cactus” because they’re small fragments seem to jump on to you. I am not that brave. I have identified other important non-edible plants as well. Most notably the Balsam Gourd which I call the “clown nose plant” because the gourd is bright red and perfectly round. The Balsam gourd is an excellent food source for quail and deer, adding a bright burst of color among the green & brown foliage.  Many plants on the ranch still grow in a cloud of mystery.

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Balsam Gourd grows like a vine in this Desert Hackberry bush. Photo: Kristin Parma

Construction on the ranch house, life & rattlesnake mating season put extensive walking of the property on the back burner for a few months. Returning to the brush land, Adam and I replenished wildlife feeders, restored game cameras and maintained trails like park wardens. Spring was turning into Summer. I was disappointed to find I had missed the agarita harvest (My friend Morgan & I once made Agarita margaritas) but there were still Black Persimmons to ripen. On our walks I love to point them out- the female trees are the only ones who bare fruit. Adam probably rolls his eyes as I repeat the factoid over and over again. I was convinced this would be the year I would harvest a ton of persimmon fruit to whip into various concoctions.

A couple of weeks ago I noticed our property was covered in beautiful, small, glistening orange berries. I had probably seen them before but something struck me about them.  Recently I had skimmed through Morgan’s wild edible book titled Wild Edible Plants of Texas on one of our cherished walks together. When I came to the small section about Hackberry trees I was surprised to read that three types of Hackberry were edible in Texas. I didn’t even know there was more than one type of Hackberry tree.

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Leaf-footed bug makes a home on a Desert Hackberry. These stink bugs suck the juices right out of fruit. It seems all wildlife benefit from the Hackberry.

The light bulb went off a few days later when on a walk to the very back of the property I couldn’t help but notice plant after plant covered in the orange berries.  I texted Morgan immediately pictures of my find and she confirmed- Desert Hackberry. We were all skeptical of our discovery however so we sought out the internet and nature prolific friends for affirmation.  

Foraging Texas: Desert Hackberry

It turns out the Czech Out Ranch is littered with Desert Hackberry which bare an edible fruit that is an excellent food source for all wildlife- birds, deer, raccoon and even coyote have been noted to eat the fruit. The tree itself, which is actually categorized as a bush, provides fantastic ground cover for Bobwhite quail. In addition, it is a good source of pollen for bees and is the host plant for the Snout Nose butterfly. This explains why last summer we had so many snout nose butterfly at the ranch it almost appeared like it was snowing.

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Jane & I pose with some of our Hackberry fruit harvest and one of the larger bushes we found.

It still amazes me that there is so much wild edible fruit that nobody wants to pick or try because it is inconvenient to do so. Heaven forbid you get poked, scratched or sweat in the hot Texas sun and work for a little bit for sustenance. For me it is the lack of convenience that is so rewarding. Picking fruit, no matter how difficult, takes me back to my Pacific Northwest childhood. My mom would often employ my brother and I to pick wild blackberries on the roadside or visit You-Pick farms for strawberries or blueberries. Something she still does to this day. We would help her pick and we would also gorge ourselves. Early in our relationship Adam and I visited a You-Pick cherry farm which required me to sit on his shoulders while he stood on a ladder to reach the ripe fruit. The year after that experience, they closed all You-Pick cherries in Oregon for reliability issues. Go figure. Why pick fruit when you can go to the grocery store right? Even HEB or the farmer’s market can’t source a more local fruit then the Desert Hackberry from our backyard.

When I bring up the Hackberry in conversation you can almost hear the noses crinkle with distaste. The reaction is visceral for most Texans, as if they’ve been trained over the years to hate the thorny plant with a rather unattractive name. The Hackberry is one of those many Texas plants with a bad reputation. It may be thorny and hard to remove, but it serves a multitude of purposes to the South Texas wildlife and landscape. I always find it interesting when I visit my local nursery where you can BUY Prickly Pear cactus. Is the Hackberry the new Prickly pear? Eradicated from backyards and Texas properties everywhere only to be bought at a nursery to be placed among other landscape ornamental plants. I sure hope not.

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We discovered that some berries were more sweet then others depending on the bush. The more sparse the berries, the sweeter. Perhaps the birds knew something we didn’t.

With the amount of Desert Hackberry at the ranch I don’t think it will be eradicated anytime soon. Birds will continue to spread the seeds and we will bask in nature’s free food for years to come. I will know it’s great importance and the role in plays on the property I cherish so much and can share that with others.

Stay tuned for Part 2: Desert Hackberry to see what Adam and I make with our harvest!

2 thoughts on “The Curious Weed: Foraging on the ranch

    1. Some are sweet and some are tart. It is almost like a very small Rainier cherry to me, though that might just be my Pacific Northwest upbringing. The only local recipe online described it as tasting like sweet tea. You’ll have to wait for Part 2 to see what we made! Coming soon…promise!

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