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What is a Hackberry?

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  • Written By: Jennifer Voight
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
  • Last Modified Date: 07 December 2016
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The hackberry is a member of the Celtis genus of deciduous trees that grows in many widespread areas of the world. Types of hackberries can be found in central and eastern North America, South America, Europe, southern and central Africa, and parts of southern Asia. Hackberries are a fast-growing, medium-sized tree that can live as long as 200 years.

In some areas, hackberries are used as ornamentals due to the plant's tolerance to drought and pollution. Its wind resistance and deep root systems also make hackberries useful for controlling erosion. Since hackberry wood is relatively soft, it has little commercial value, although it might rarely be used for inexpensive furniture when light-colored wood is desired.

Around the world, hackberries are used in art, as food, and for medicinal uses. In Asia, some types of hackberry are used in the art of bonsai. The leaves are an ingredient in Korean tea. Many groups around the world eat the berries or use hackberry flowers as a pollen source in making honey.

Native Americans valued the desert hackberry, sugar berry, and netleaf hackberry. They believed it cured many disorders of the reproductive system. The fruits were a good source of plant-based protein when animal sources were scarce and were used as an ingredient in porridge, cakes, or as a flavoring. Hackberry wood was used for making tools and bows and as a source of firewood during their religious ceremonies.

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Hackberries produce small, yellow flowers in the spring and small, dark red, purple, or black drupes in the fall. Wild turkey, pheasants, robins, and other birds use the fruit as a source of food in winter. The branches provide cover for many birds, deer, and small mammals.

Hackberries may stay shrub-sized or grow as tall as 100 feet (30 meters). Although they grow naturally in moist, alluvial, bottomland soils, hackberries will do well in a wide variety of soil types. Nipple gall and witches broom gall are the most common diseases affecting the tree. The common hackberry may harbor leaf spot fungi. Most conditions will not kill the tree but may hinder its growth and overall health.

Many nurseries carry cultivar seedlings and they transplant well. In fertile, moist soil, young hackberries can grow more than 1 foot (30 cm) per year for the first six years after planting. Hackberries need careful pruning when younger than 15 years old to prevent limb weakness from developing. They are susceptible to ice damage and should not be used along streets where physical damage may occur.

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