Since. the chickens have been in the run, I’ve noticed that there is a certain type of leaf that falls from one of the trees that they are simply crazy about. If a single leaf falls into the run, there is complete mayhem. The one who is able to snatch up the coveted leaf, tears around the run with it hanging from their beak with most of the flock in hot pursuit. I finally took the time to figure out which tree the leaves were coming from so that I could make sure that they weren’t slowly poisoning themselves, because, you know…even though chickens are supposed to know what’s good for them as far as food, sometimes they’re a little…dim.
I used some fancy tree identifying app that I found on the web and discovered that the tree was a hackberry tree. I had no idea of whether or not it was safe for chickens, so I did what most of us do, I went to a chicken page on Facebook and asked a herbalist, who advertises that she has many years of experience of working with plants and chickens, if she thought it was okay that they were consuming them like crack addicts. I waited several days for a response and finally was told that she had no information about that particular tree although it did appear to be common.
So much for taking the lazy way out by asking someone else.
So I did my own research and since this is such a common tree, I wanted to share with you what I found out.
Hackberry trees are sometimes called Sugarberry trees in the south. They can be found pretty much all over North America and are a member of the elm family. In fact, the USDA Plant Guide, refers to them as “false elms”. They can live to be 150 to 200 years old! It is a large deciduous tree that commonly has warty bark and drooping branches. It usually flowers in May with greenish-yellow flowers that emerge with the leaves. Later, the tree develops small greenish “drupes” or fruits that are small, dark green and hard. In the fall they ripen to a purplish, dark red or black in the months of September and October.
Hackberry leaves are alternately arranged and simple and can be 7-12 centimeters long. The undersides of the leaves commonly are infested with “nipple galls” which are caused by psyllid (looks like a tiny green cicada). These insects don’t kill the tree but make it less attractive due to the growth of the galls on the leaves.
Interestingly, Native Americans utilized hackberry trees for several things. Medicinally, the bark was utilized in a brew that would induce abortion, regulate menstrual cycles and treat STD’s and was also taken for sore throats. The fruit, or drupes, were used with corn and fat to make a pasty gruel or crushed and often used to spice other foods or add flavor. The fruit was also ground to a paste and was cooked over an open fire on a stick. The wood from the tree was used in Native American peyote ceremonies to fuel the fire and new wood was added at the beginning of each part of the ceremony. Fascinating.
With regard to animals, deer will browse the leaves which commonly hang low on drooping branches. Wild birds and small mammals seem to love the fruit. The fruit is also high in calcium! Several sources noted that although the edible section of the fruit is very small, it tastes much like a date.
Hackberry is also a host for mistletoe. After doing my research, I recall that we thought there were hawk or eagle nests in the top of our several hackberry trees. The tangled masses that we mistook for nests are actually balls of mistletoe! It’s parasitic to the tree, but does not harm it.
I thought about everything I’d read and honestly, I could write for hours about what I found, but I felt safe making the leap that hackberry was safe for my chickens. They’ve been eating the leaves for months now with no untoward effects and the leaves are their very favorite treat. I think if I set hackberry leaves next to a half a watermelon, they’d eat the leaves first. I’ve even trained Vinnie to jump for a leaf if I hold it high above his head. He seems to enjoy jumping, he gets a treat when he grabs the leaf and it’s just down right funny. I always say “Time for Stupid Chicken Tricks!” before I gather a big handful of the leaves. They follow me to the side of the run where the branches hang low and while I pick leaves they chortle and cluck excitedly.
So that’s it! Mystery solved. If you have a hackberry tree on your property, after you’ve made sure that’s what it is, see if your chickens are interested in the leaves. Mine gives them FIVE STARS and two wings up!
They’d give them two thumbs up, but you know…chickens…no thumbs.
***Additional note: The hackberry tree is not on the list of plants that are toxic to animals that has been developed by the University of Illinois School of Veterinary Medicine. ***
Sources: USDA NRCS Plant Guide, Dave’s Garden, Forestry: About.com, Eattheweeds.com
I shared this post on The Backyard Farming Connection Hop #86