Pull It or Plant It: Hackberry

Mar 27, 2018 | Native Plants

LC: Hackberry gets a lot of hate. Even the name sounds like coughing up something unpleasant. But the trees are tolerant of various conditions and don’t require much love, growing just about anywhere and fast. Plus, hackberries have a large native range; Celtis species of one kind or another can be found across North America.

PS: I have spent enough time dealing with headaches caused by hackberry trees that I have very little tolerance or personal appreciation for them. In fact, I consider them a real nuisance. Hackberry is a fast-growing (and fast-dying), weak-wooded, moisture-loving species that is prone to heavy infestations of mistletoe and is very poorly behaved in general.

WILDLIFE VALUE

LC: Hackberry is an important tree for wildlife with berries (technically drupes) that are relished by a diversity of birds, including quail, woodpeckers and waxwings. Its leaves are the favorite larval food of hordes of butterflies and moths, including tawny emperors, question marks and American snouts. According to author and entomologist Doug Tallamy, Ph.D., the genus supports as many as 43 species of caterpillars (in the mid-Atlantic region).

PS: Birds of all kinds do love hackberries, and in good years, about every one of those seeds will sprout. If you do not mow frequently (or have a herd of goats), those little seedlings will take hold and form thickets under your shade trees. They will also take over your fence lines and any other spots where birds defecate merrily.

WATER

LC: In my area of East Austin, with deep riparian soils, there are large, beautiful hackberry trees that have survived many of the recent droughts without being watered. These fast-growing trees also stabilize the banks of area streams, giving slower-growing species time to fill in.

PS: Call it a grudge if you will, but one of my biggest chores in recent years has been cutting up hackberries that perished on my property in the big drought of 2011. In contrast, I did not lose a single anacua or live oak (I consider these to be “good” trees). I prefer to cultivate trees that are durable, drought tolerant, long lived and well-behaved. The hackberry does not possess any of these qualities.

ON THE OTHER HAND …

LC: Hackberries are prolific in my garden and I am forever pulling up the seedlings. Frankly, they can drive me nuts. But I have left the larger, more mature specimens on the edges of my yard — mostly out of laziness — hopefully far enough away from cars and structures that could get hit by falling limbs (or entire trees toppling over, which I’ve seen).

PS: The best place for hackberry is out there in nature, unassisted by human effort. However, there is a hackberry tree that sprouted up in just the right spot in my backyard and has grown to about 15 feet tall. The other day I gave it some water, and I am now having a serious existential and philosophical crisis as a result. This is Texas, after all, where sometimes any shade is better than none.