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Native to central and northeastern North America, hackberry is one of the toughest and most adaptable deciduous trees in the country. It grows at a moderate-to-fast rate of 12 to 15 inches per year. Hackberry grows best in moist, well-drained organically rich soil, but it also tolerates a wide range of wet and dry soil conditions, including clay and limestone.
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Common hackberry is a good choice for beginning gardeners because it tolerates hot, windy conditions in the Plains states and easily withstands cold temperatures in the North. Hackberry is also adaptable to pollution and salt, making this plant suitable for urban and suburban yards and streets.
Hackberry bears bright green leaves that turn yellow in autumn. Though not known for fall color, it does produce sweet, edible fruit that attracts birds and other wildlife such as squirrels. The dark red or purple drupes (berries) mature in late summer or early fall and persist on the tree through winter.
This tree also displays interesting bark. Young branches sport corky outgrowths similar to euonymus or sweet gum, while older bark features a unique warty, sometimes scaly, look.
Hackberry Care Must-Knows
Plant hackberry in well-drained soil where it will receive full sun. Prune it once it's dormant. Common hackberry can be disfigured by witches'-broom (clusters of twiggy growths) thought to be caused by a combination of mites and powdery mildew. Unfortunately, there is no practical remedy for this issue. Don't fret, though: the problem is merely cosmetic. It has no apparent effect on a tree's vigor and is only noticeable when the tree is dormant. Some people like the character witches'-broom gives to a tree's silhouette in winter.
Two additional cosmetic issues are worth noting. Puckered-looking leaves indicate the harmless insect hackberry nipple gall has taken up residence in your tree. On high-pH sites, leaves may show signs of chlorosis, a loss of coloring due to nutrient deficiency. Treat chlorosis by applying an acidifying agent such as sulfur or iron chelate.
Hackberry in the Landscape
Common hackberry is a tall shade tree that can be grown alone or with companions if space is available. With its tough disposition and upright, rounded shape, hackberry has been considered as a street tree replacement for the related American elm (Ulmus americana). Like the elm, it accepts a variety of conditions within a wide geographical range. With its fast growth and hardiness, common hackberry is a good candidate for using as a windbreak, a shade tree, or as erosion control.
This species looks best in a naturalized planting paired with other resilient trees such as mulberry, elm, and honey-locust, and shrubs such as lilac, viburnum, and quince. Suitable groundcover companions include vinca vine, ajuga, lamium, and epimedium, as well as taller shade dwellers such as hosta and Solomon's seal.
Dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), an irregularly shaped shrub or small tree usually maturing at under 20 feet. Its scraggly shape and slow growth rate mean this plant is better suited to the dry conditions found in rocky areas, sand dunes, and the shallow soils topping limestone.
Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) grows in the moist bottomlands and streambanks of the lower Mississippi valley, where it reaches 60 to 80 feet tall. It is less susceptible to witches'-broom and galls than common hackberry. But because this species is more prone to storm damage and trunk rot, it's not as suitable as a street tree.