Hackberry trees

September 17, 2008 lawanda Newspaper Columns

      Alan Jackson sings, “If money grew on hackberry trees . . . that’d be all right.”  Ever wonder what a hackberry tree looks like?

      Hackbery (Celtis occidentalis) is one of the most versatile shade trees.  It is related to the elm and in fact grows in the vase form of the elm, but just a little wider.  Hackberries grow fast and tall in the Midwest.  The record-holder tree is 94 feet tall and more than six feet in diameter.  Hackberries on poorer soil grow 40 to 60 feet tall.  They are very tolerant of drought, air pollution and short-term flooding, but these factors make them grow more slowly.

      The most notable feature of the hackberry is the bark – it has grooved and corky warty bumps over a smooth gray background. 

      The leaves look like those of stinging nettle and turn a variable greenish yellow in the fall.  Spring brings inconspicuous greenish flowers.  Small fruits follow the flowers and turn orange-brown and then purplish black in late summer, reaching the size of a garden pea.  The thin, leathery layer of flesh that surrounds the hard seed has a raisin-like taste that birds love.  Butterflies are also attracted to hackberries.

      Hackberries will adjust to almost any site, but ideal conditions are rich, deep soils with a neutral to basic pH, adequate moisture and sun.  Seeds (from the fruits) can be sown in fall.  Hackberries transplant easily but will take a year or two to recover.

      There are few problems with hackberries.  They are subject to leaf galls and mosaic diseases but neither is serious.  Some species are allelopathic, like black walnuts are, meaning their roots give off compounds that inhibit germination or seedling growth of other plants, so some other plants may not flourish in hackberry root zones.

      The most important problem is susceptibility to decay which begins after damage from storms or improper pruning.  Learning proper pruning techniques and making sure to prune off any storm damaged branches should take care of this problem. 

      There are just a few cultivars to choose from.  The ones most resistant to storm damage are ‘Prairie Pride,’ ‘Chicagoland,’ and ‘Windy City.’  All were developed in Illinois.  There is also a dwarf variety called Celtis tenuifola.  It is a good specimen for a small yard or terrace and is one of the most suitable decorative trees for raised planters or large containers.

      Hackberry trees are often mentioned as one of the best food and shelter trees for wildlife.

Trees and Shrubs

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