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October 7, 2020
Photo of common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) by Vern Wilkins.
As I finally finish regaling another successful and collaborative spring tree planting season and the last of the maintenance is being implemented, I can’t help but to praise the various tree species that have worked so hard over the season to help us realize our lofty dreams of more forests in our landscape. We strive to plant a diversity of trees and shrubs that match the project’s site conditions, but we do have our usual stalwarts that perform well for us every year and most often top our planting plan species lists; For instance those trees that are sure to push their crowns well beyond their 5′ sheltered enclosure in that first growing season. I am talking about you American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera) and Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). And how about you, red maple (Acer rubrum), growing well anywhere I place you; or you sweetgum (Liquidambar styricaflua) taking a licking but keeping on with that ticking. Let us not forget our stately oaks; northern red, swamp white and willow (Q. rubrum, bicolor and phellos) – just getting it done out there. You all remain perennially on my list. I write here today, however, about a common un-sung and, until now, underutilized tree that has hacked its way to the top of my reforestation go to’s. That, of course, is common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis).
Common (but not ordinary) hackberry is a canopy tree and member of the elm family (Ulmaceae) which is evident in its serrated leaves with rounded asymmetrical bases like American elm and slippery elm. This extraordinary tree can be found in all our physiographic provinces and endures a wide range of climatic, soil, moisture and light conditions. It has a tolerance for both droughts and floods and can be found as easily growing in flood plains and swamps as well as wooded slopes and ridges. This ability to tolerate a wide variety of conditions makes it and ideal in urban settings. The Arbor Day Foundations has referenced common hackberry as “one tough tree” and “a good landscape choice, particularly if you’re looking for an energy-conserving shade tree that doesn’t require watering.”
Hackberry typically grows somewhat quickly and can attain a height of between 40′ and 60′ and up to 100′ on the loamy well drained soils. Open grown trees can take on that broad, vase like crown like the majestic American elm, but hackberry isn’t susceptible to Dutch Elm disease. This is another reason why hackberry makes an ideal shade tree in our urban and suburban areas.
Hackberry produces a small orange fruit (drupe) in the late summer that turns dark purple when it matures in the fall. Fruit can persist on the tree into the winter, providing a valuable food source for winter birds like cedar waxwings, turkey and ruffed grouse and small mammals. Hackberries have been consumed by humans for a millennium. The pulp of the fruit is quite thin, but the crunchy seed is high in protein. Many native American tribes grind the seed into a pulp and mix with fat and corn. These tribes also used decoctions from the bark as medicine for various ailments. This bark is also a key feature to identifying hackberry. Hackberry has warty bark that develops early in the sapling stage, which is most apropos for our fast approaching Halloween holiday.
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