Common Hackberry

Celtis occidentalis

by John Brouwer

Hackberries are widespread throughout the world. They are fast-growing medium-sized trees which can live as long as 200 years. In North American hackberries are also know as sugar berry, beaver wood, and nettlewood.

Our common hackberry resembles elm, that rural tree which has almost been completely eliminated by dutch elm disease. Even botanists had trouble distinguishing hackberry from elm as it was originally classified as a division of the elm family of trees. It was only in the last decades that botanists have agreed that hackberries should have their own classification – Celtis.

Hackberries have small yellow flowers in the spring which turn into small pea-size purple fruits in late summer. Fruit will hang on the tree through the winter. Many birds and small mammals use the fruit as winter food. The flowers are valuable as a source of nectar and pollen for bees, insects, moths, and butterflies. Hackberry is a great tree for attracting birds.

Although hackberry can be an excellent landscaping tree, in late summer and fall the dropping fruit will make a mess on driveways and vehicles. Best to keep hackberries over grassed areas.

Hackberry is tolerant of drought and many soil types. It's deep root systems can be useful in controlling erosion. It is also used in windbreaks in combination with other trees.

The wood is soft and has little commercial value. Its light colour can make it attractive for special wood-working projects.

In Asia some types of hackberry are used for bonsai.

Traditionally hackberry was used to cure reproductive disorders. The bark of the tree was boiled down and used medicinally to induce abortions and cure venereal diseases

Like all berries hackberry was used as a flavouring agent in food.

Some hackberries have been planted on the creek bank across Pine Ridge and on the old Westmont road bed.

A related species, dwarf hackberry, is a small shrub which is now endangered in southern Ontario. It only occurs on six sites. Dwarf hackberry is very drought-resistant and is found on gravel soils. The mining of these gravel soils is the main cause of the decline of this species. It would be good to find some dwarf hackberry seedlings as the old Westmount roadbed with its gravel bed would be an ideal site.