If you’re looking for a tough, long-lived shade tree, hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) might be just the right tree. Native to the Eastern United States and the Midwest, hackberry trees thrive in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 through 9. They have an upright, arching form with a graceful, open canopy. Healthy trees can grow 40 to 60 feet tall, although some trees reach 100 feet tall or more, making them most suitable for large yards.
Hackberry trees have attractive serrated leaves and they produce light green flowers in the spring. Brownish to purple drupes form mid-summer. These berries are edible, although they’re preferred mostly by the birds. In the fall, the leaves turn a bland yellow before dropping. Hackberry trees are known for their corky texture and warty growths on the bark.
Because of the berries it produces that are so attractive to birds, you will often see hackberry trees along fence lines and power lines where the birds have perched after eating the berries elsewhere.
Planting Hackberry Trees
Plant hackberry trees in almost any soil. They prefer a slightly moist, organic soil, but they tolerate clay, compacted soil, alkaline soil and drought. Dig a hole as deep and at least twice as wide as the root ball. Set the tree in gently and ensure that it’s straight. Fill the hole half full with soil and add two gallons of water. Allow the water to drain before filling the hole with the remaining soil. Firm the soil lightly with your foot to remove any air pockets.
Select a sunny location for hackberry trees. They tolerate partial shade, but they grow best in full sun. Also, make sure to account for the large size of this tree when mature and space them accordingly. Water the tree every week the first season after planting, especially during dry conditions, until the roots become established. In subsequent years, you can probably get by with watering only when the weather is dry, especially if the tree sits near an irrigated lawn.
Caring for Hackberry Trees
Once established, hackberry trees need little care beyond the occasional pruning. Prune them in late winter while they’re dormant to remove dead and diseased branches, or branches that are growing vertically or rub against each other.
Hackberry trees drop drupes and seeds, which can create a litter problem on sidewalks and patios. Plant them away from these areas or plan on sweeping regularly. The wood of the hackberry tree is soft and relatively weak, and decays rapidly when the wood drops and is exposed to the elements.
Hackberry Tree Pests and Problems
Hackberry nipple gall is probably the most common disease to infect hackberry trees. It causes raised bumps on the leaves and discoloration. Although it won’t harm the tree, it is disfiguring. Witch’s broom is another common problem that causes dense, twisted overgrowth at the ends of branches and twigs. It is also mostly a cosmetic problem.
The best defense against it is to plant disease resistant varieties. The trees sometimes suffer from powdery mildew, which can be usually be ignored or treated with fungicide applications. Although hackberries are related to elms, they don’t suffer from Dutch Elm disease.
As far as insect pests go, the most common problem are scales, which are small insects that form in colonies on the twigs and stems, sucking the juices from the tree. Small trees can be sprayed with insecticidal oil or soap to smother the insects. Larger trees are harder to treat.
Want to learn more about growing hackberry trees?
Texas A&M writes about the hackberry on its very informative Trees of Texas site.
ESFTV gives a terrific video overview of hackberry trees on YouTube.
MiWilderness shows you how to identify hackberry trees and the edible berries it produces on YouTube.