Why You Should Plant a Hackberry Tree

hackberry tree with dark berries and green leaves
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Any yard of any size can reap the many benefits of planting trees, including fresh air, shade, and visual appeal, to name a few. But not every tree is right for every yard, with considerations like space, soil, and sunlight coming into play. Hackberry is a viable option for many yards, even those in urban areas or with poor nutrients. Some gardeners consider tenacious, resilient hackberry trees a nuisance, but others love the diversity and functionality they bring to the landscape. You decide!

A Little About Hackberry Trees

Celtis occidentalis also goes by the names hackberry, American hackberry, Mississippi hackberry, nettle tree, Northern hackberry, sugarberry, and beaverwood. It’s also sometimes referred to as a false elm, and in fact it’s part of the elm family.

The species in native to North America and is deciduous. Some common varieties of Hackberry include Green Cascade, Prairie Sentinel, Prairie Pride, and Magnifica.

1. Provides Shade

Hackberry trees can grow very large, maxing out at 80 feet tall and 60 feet wide. The average size, though, is around 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Celtis occidentalis may live for up to 150-200 years. With these characteristics, hackberry can make a great shade tree.

2. Grows Quickly

It’s also a fast-growing option, which is perfect for filling in voids or developing new landscaping. Expect hackberry to grow anywhere from 13-24 inches per year.

3. Produces Fruit

dark berries growing on a hackberry tree

It may not be a fruit you see at every corner market, but hackberry fruit has been used for a variety of purposes since the days Native Americans first discovered its many uses. From an ethnobotany standpoint, the tree carries a deep history. The bark was used to regulate menstrual cycles, treat colds, and soothe sore throats.

The fruit was often mixed with fat and corn to produce a porridge-like food. The berries contain cytotoxic and antioxidant properties, and can also be pounded into a paste and baked. The hackberry itself is an oblong drupe and is said to have a flavor similar to dates when it matures in the fall. Some gardeners choose to avoid the trees because of the mess they make when dropping fruit.

4. Attracts Wildlife

However, the advantage of the fruit, even on the ground, is that it provides a food source for a variety of animals. Its fruits draw in many birds (especially in the winter), including cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, and robins. You might also attract wild turkey, ring-necked pheasant, quail, grouse, or lesser prairie chicken. In addition, small mammals lap up the droppings or scurry along the branches to collect them before they fall. The leaves also provide food for many caterpillars, which both feed birds and grow into butterflies.

Well before the fruit develops, the tree attracts pollinators to the yard, including the birds, butterflies, and bees. In fact, at least five species of butterfly are associated with the hackberry tree, including the Tawny Emperor, Snout Butterfly, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, and the rare Hackberry Emperor. The sprawling plant not only provides food, but also makes shelter for a variety of small wildlife.

5. It’s Very Forgiving

The hackberry will grow just about anywhere it can get a bit of sun and water. It’s popular in urban areas because it even thrives in wastewater runoff areas. While you might have lush and fertile fields, hackberry is found growing in poor soil conditions and tolerates wind, heat, air pollution, salt, and any number of other natural conditions that would kill off other trees.

healthy hackberry tree with leaves in bright sun

6. The Wood is Useful

If a branch falls to the ground during a storm, it makes great firewood. It’s easy to split, but heavy so it produces few sparks and little smoke. Plus, it releases a pleasant scent while it burns. Native Americans used to use the wood for ceremonies.

In addition, the softwood can be used as a building material for things like furniture, fence posts, boxes and plywood. It’s not a high-quality option like hardwoods but has its place as a useful option.

7. Fights Soil Erosion

Since hackwood is so forgiving, it makes an effective stabilizer along the edge of waterways, such as rivers. Along the banks, it helps prevent soil erosion and flooding.