by Neil Carleton
When I met some acquaintances last fall at an unexpected location, it took more than a few moments to match a name. You know the feeling. There sure was something familiar, but the out of context setting interfered with an instant recognition.
These shady characters first came to my attention a while back on Gillies Island in Carleton Place, also known as Bates or Innes Island. Located there is one of the largest concentrations of hackberry in eastern Ontario.
It was quite a surprise to discover these uncommon trees also living comfortably on Coleman Island in Almonte. Although northern or common hackberry is native to Ontario, its distribution is limited. As northern outliers here in this part of the continent, they can be found in scattered locations across southern Ontario, from Windsor to the Ottawa valley.
Hackberry can grow in a variety of habitats, but seems to prefer moister ground and soils high in calcium carbonate. The spray from the back falls on Coleman Island, as the river tumbles over the limestone escarpment, provides plenty of moisture to the young grove.
The origins of tree names are always of interest. The genus Celtis is the Latin name for the African lotus, a reference to the hackberry’s sweet fruit which is popular with wildlife. The species name, occidentalis, means western or of the western hemisphere. It’s been suggested that the name “hackberry” derived from “hagberry,” meaning “marsh berry”. This is the name in Scotland for bird cherry, which has a fruit similar in appearance to hackberry.
It’s a mystery how the previously unreported hackberry trees in Almonte came to Coleman Island. Their seeds are not carried by the wind, so they had to be transported in some other way.
Hackberry fruit matures in September or October, and may remain on the tree during winter. According to research literature, hackberry seeds are dispersed by gravity, as well as fruit-eating birds, mammals, and reptiles. If seeds were deposited in Almonte by birds, who had ingested them while feeding upstream in Carleton Place, this could explain the resulting trees. They’d be avian assisted island hoppers.
Another possibility is by human hand. It’s legend in our region that hackberry was planted at stopping places along the Mississippi River by indigenous peoples for medicine, as well as a source of seasonal food, fiber, and dye. Research has identified that medicinal decoctions were prepared by native practitioners from hackberry bark as an aid in menses, and to treat sore throat. Did hackberry trees first arrive on Coleman Island in Almonte, and Gillies Island in Carleton Place, as seedlings in dugout or bark canoes?
As a member of the elm family, hackberry has become a home planting alternative because it’s immune to Dutch elm disease. The City of Toronto, for example, notes that it’s a suitable replacement for elm in urban environments because it’s hardy and adaptable to a range of conditions.
The hackberry forest in Carleton Place is one of the largest in eastern Ontario. Not surprisingly, a park as well as a street have been named by the Town for the tree. Hackberry Park is located along the river on historic Mill Street with a view downstream of the dam. Hackberry Trail can be found in the subdivision east of McNeely Avenue that’s bordered on the north by the Mississippi Riverwalk Trail between Grape Island and Arklan Island.
Do you have a notable or favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <email@example.com>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.
My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Committee is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.
Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.