Hackberry

Celtis occidentalis

Hackberry_Celtis_occidentalis.jpg

Illustration of hackberry leaves, stem, fruit.
Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis
Paul Nelson
Edible
Family

Cannabaceae (hemps) (formerly included in the Ulmaceae, the elms)

Description

Hackberry is a medium to large tree with a rounded crown.

Leaves are alternate, simple, with one side longer or wider than the other, sharply toothed, rough to the touch, 2–4 inches long, with 3 main veins emerging from the base, tip sharply pointed, base uneven.

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, ripening to deep purple, borne on long stems, with a single hard seed within, usually persisting through winter.

Size

Height: 90 feet; spread: 90 feet.

Habitat and conservation

Occurs in moist woodlands, in bottomlands, and in uplands, nearly statewide. Although hackberry prefers moist bottom soil situations, it will grow on any moist, fertile area. Thick clusters of twigs ("witches' brooms") develop on many hackberries, especially ones growing in open areas. A mildew and a mite apparently cause the deformed buds that produce these variant growth patterns.

image of Hackberry Distribution Map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Until 2009, hackberry and other trees in its genus were placed in the elm family, the Ulmaceae. Nearly all books in print today reflect that understanding. However, scientists are using new tools to study plant relationships, particularly genetic (DNA) testing. In 2009, a group of respected botanists called the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group determined that hackberries are actually more closely related to cannabis and hops, so these are all now in the Cannabaceae, or hemp family.

Human connections

Hackberry is used, though it is not a favorite plant, for landscaping and for wood products. It has been used in shelterbelt plantings to form windbreaks. Many Native American groups pounded the sweet fruits and used them to season meat and to make corn cakes tastier.

Ecosystem connections

The fruit is eaten by at least 25 species of songbirds, plus turkey, quail, grouse, squirrels, and raccoons. Flocks of cedar waxwings congregate to devour the fruits. The hackberry butterfly, a dainty brown and tan butterfly with little eyespots, develops as a larva on hackberry leaves.