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Northern Hackberry Celtis occidentalis


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Northern Hackberry, leaves
credit: Sten Porse/CCSA

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Alternate name: Common Hackberry

Family: Ulmaceae, Elm view all from this family

Description A medium-size deciduous tree native to North America, it is also known as the nettletree, beaverwood, and American hackberry. It is a moderately long-lived hardwood with a light-colored wood, yellowish gray to light brown with yellow streaks.

The Common Hackberry is easily distinguished from elms and some other hackberries by its cork-like bark with wart-like protuberances. The leaves are distinctly asymmetrical and coarse-textured. It produces small berries that turn orange-red to dark purple in the Autumn, often staying on the trees for several months. The Common Hackberry is easily confused with the sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) and is most easily distinguished by range and habitat. The Common Hackberry also has wider leaves that are coarser above than the sugarberry.

Usually the Common Hackberry forms a medium sized tree, thirty to fifty feet in height, with a slender trunk; however, it can rise to the height of one hundred and thirty feet, in the best conditions in the southern Mississippi valley area. In the middle states of its range it seldom attains a height of more than sixty feet, and has a handsome round-topped head and pendulous branches. It prefers rich moist soil, but will grow on gravelly or rocky hillsides. The roots are fibrous and it grows rapidly. In the western part of its range with less rainfall and poorer soils it normally averages about thirty feet in height, but at least one specimen was found at ninety five feet. The maximum age attained by hackberry is probably between 150 and 200 years in ideal conditions.

The bark is light brown or silvery gray, broken on the surface into thick appressed scales and sometimes roughened with excrescenses; pattern is very distinctive. The branchlets are slender, light green at first, finally red brown, at length become dark brown tinged with red. The winter buds are axillary, ovate, acute, somewhat flattened, one-fourth of an inch long, light brown. Scales enlarge with the growing shoot, the innermost becoming stipules. No terminal bud is formed. The leaves are alternately arranged on stems, ovate to ovate-lanceolate, more or less falcate, two and a half to four inches (102 mm) long, one to two inches wide, very oblique at the base, serrate, except at the base which is mostly entire, acute. Three-nerved, midrib and primary veins prominent. They come out of the bud conduplicate with slightly involute margins, pale yellow green, downy; when full grown are thin, bright green, rough above, paler green beneath. In autumn they turn to a light yellow. Petioles slender, slightly grooved, hairy. Stipules varying in form, caducous.

The flowers appear in May, soon after the leaves. Polygamo-monú cious, greenish. Of three kinds—staminate, pistillate, perfect; born on slender drooping pedicels. The calyx is light yellow green, five-lobed, divided nearly to the base; lobes linear, acute, more or less cut at the apex, often tipped with hairs, imbricate in bud.

Habitat Canyons & valleys.

Range Plains, Mid-Atlantic, Southwest, Southeast, Rocky Mountains, Florida, Texas, Great Lakes, New England.

Comments This good shade tree withstands wind, drought, flooding, most soil extremes, and city pollution. It has a medium to fast growth rate, growing most vigorously in moist, rich soils. Hackberry is subject to leaf galls, witches broom, and mosaics, but not of these problems are serious. The biggest problem is the trees' susceptibility to decay, which frequently begins after storms, fire, or improper pruning.

Exposure Preference Sun.

Native Distribution New Hampshire to Wyoming, s. to Georgia, Arkansas & n.w. Texas

Site Preference Stream banks; flood plains; rocky hillsides of open woods

Soil Preference Rich, moist soils. pH adaptable.

Wildlife Value Hackberries are among the best food and shelter plants for wildlife. The fruit is relished by birds.