Common hackberry is a medium to large tree with a rounded crown, up to 90 feet tall.
Leaves are alternate, simple, with one side longer or wider than the other, sharply toothed, 2–4 inches long, with 3 main veins emerging from the base, tip sharply pointed, base uneven. Upper surface rough to the touch; lower surface hairy.
Bark is gray, rather smooth when young, becoming covered with distinctive corky, warty projections that eventually join into ridges with age.
Twigs are slender, usually shiny, flexible, zigzag, light brown, becoming gray. Pith is light colored and broken by intermittent chambers.
Flowers April–May; male flowers in clusters toward base of the new branch; female flowers toward the tip, small, single or in pairs.
Fruits in September, fleshy, berrylike, ¼–½ inch wide, orange red, ripening to deep purple, borne on long stems, with a single hard seed within, usually persisting through winter.
Similar species: Missouri has two other species of hackberries: sugarberry (C. laevigata) and dwarf hackberry (C. tenuifolia).
- Sugarberry has stout, spreading branches forming a broad, irregular crown; smooth bark that usually develops some warty projections; relatively narrower leaves than common hackberry, with a few teeth toward the tip. Leaves are smooth (not rough) on the uppersurface; not hairy on the undersurface. Fruit are orange red to black, only to about ¼ inch wide. Occurs in the same kinds of habitats as common hackberry (bottomlands as well as uplands), with a slight preference for bottomlands. It is generally absent from the northern third of Missouri.
- Dwarf hackberry is a shrub to small tree up to 24 feet tall, often somewhat scraggly with some corky projections on the bark. Leaves are generally smaller than the other two hackberries and have few teeth. Fruit is orange to brown or red, to about ¼ inch wide. Occurs in rocky, open woods, dolomite glades, and along bluffs. It is generally absent from the northern third of Missouri as well as from the Bootheel.