Hackberry Trees: Pictures, Description

Green leaves and berries on a Hackberry tree.

Andrey Zharkikh / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hackberry is a tree with an elm-like form and is, in fact, related to the elm. The wood of hackberry has never been used for lumber, primarily because of the tree's softness and an almost immediate propensity to rot when in contact with the elements.

However, Celtis occidentalis is a forgiving urban tree and is considered tolerant of most soil and moisture conditions. It is a tree you will find in many parks in the United States.

Hackberry forms a rounded vase reaching a height of 40 to 80 feet, is a rapid grower, and transplants easily. The mature bark is light gray, bumpy, and corky, while its small, berry-like fruit turns from orange-red to purple and is relished by birds. The fruit will temporarily stain walks.

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Description and Identification of Hackberry

A detailed shot of Hackberry tree leaves.

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Common Names: Common hackberry, sugarberry, nettle tree, beaverwood, northern hackberry.

Habitat: On good bottomland soils, it grows fast and may live to 20 years.

Description: Hackberry is planted as a street tree in midwestern cities because of its tolerance to a wide range of soil and moisture conditions.

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The Natural Range of Hackberry

Leaves of a Hackberry tree turning yellow and dropping off.

Andrey Zharkikh / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hackberry is widely distributed in the United States and portions of Canada, from southern New England through central New York, west into southern Ontario, and farther west to North and South Dakota. Northern outliers are found in southern Quebec, western Ontario, southern Manitoba, and southeastern Wyoming.

The range extends south from western Nebraska to northeastern Colorado and northwestern Texas, and then east to Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, with scattered occurrences in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

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The Silviculture and Management of Hackberry

Sprawling Hackberry tree roots in the ground.

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Hackberry grows naturally in moist bottomland soil but will grow rapidly in a variety of soil types, from moist, fertile soils to hot, dry, rocky locations under the full heat of the sun. Hackberry is tolerant of highly alkaline soil, whereas Sugarberry is not.

Hackberry is tolerant of wind, drought, salt, and pollution once established and is considered a moderately tough, urban-tolerant tree. Skilled pruning is required several times during the first 15 years of life to prevent the formation of weak branch crotches and weak multiple trunks.

Hackberry was extensively used in street plantings in parts of Texas and in other cities as it tolerates most soils except those that are extremely alkaline, and also because it grows in the sun or partial shade. However, branches may break out from the trunk if proper pruning and training are not conducted early in the life of the tree.

Even slight injury to the trunk and branches can initiate extensive decay inside the tree. If you have this tree, plant it where it will be protected from mechanical injury. It's best for low-use areas such as along the edge of woods or in an open lawn, not along streets. The tree is very susceptible to damage in an ice storm.

One especially nice cultivar is the prairie pride common hackberry, a quick-growing tree with a uniform, upright, and compact crown. Prune and thin the canopy to prevent the formation of weak, multi-trunk trees.

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Insects and Diseases of Hackberry

Several Hackberry galls on a Hackberry leaf.

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Pests: One common insect on the tree causes hackberry nipple gall. A pouch or gall forms on the lower leaf surface in response to feeding. There are sprays available if you care to reduce this cosmetic problem. Scales of various types may be found on hackberry as well. These may be partially controlled with horticultural oil sprays.​

Diseases: Several fungi cause leaf spots on hackberry. The disease is worse during wet weather, but chemical controls are seldom needed.

Witches broom is caused by a mite and powdery mildew. The main symptom is clusters of twigs scattered throughout the tree crown. Prune out the clusters of twigs when practical. It is most common on Celtis occidentalis.

Powdery mildew may coat the leaves with white powder. The leaves may be uniformly coated or only in patches.

Mistletoe is an effective colonizer of hackberry, which can kill a tree over a period of time. It appears as evergreen masses several feet in diameter scattered about the crown.