The Plant Native

Hackberry

Highlights

Want to help butterflies and birds for generations with minimal effort?Plant a Hackberry! Hackberries are fast-growing trees that can reach up to 75 feet or more and live for 200 years. They are also the host plants for many butterflies, including the Tawny Emperor, Mourning Cloak, and Question Mark species. Hackberries are drama-free thanks to their ability to grow in a wide range of conditions: clay, sand, or humus-rich are all fine. Their tiny cherry-like fruit is edible to humans (and birds) but maybe not worth the effort (scroll on to find out why!) Plant them for future generations of people, butterflies, and birds. 

Full Sun – Part Shade
40′-75′ tall
Celtis occidentalis
Even birds you wouldn't expect to see—like bug-eating woodpeckers!—love Hackberry fruit

Dig Deeper

Explore the history, types, and where to plant native Hackberry

Table of Contents

Why is it called Hackberry?

Wow—’Hackberry’—what an awful common name. You have to wonder how popular this tree would be if it was called ‘Birdsong Tree’ or ‘Butterfly Nursery Tree.’ 

“Hackberry” comes from the old Scottish word “Hagberry” which means “bird cherry.” Which is exactly what this tree SHOULD be called! Bird Cherry is the perfect name for this beautiful tree, thanks to its tiny cherries that are bird favorites.

Fortunately, common names are given by the generations before so we can all find a way to change Hackberry to something that does this incredible tree more justice—Bird Cherry gets our vote! To make sure you’re getting the right tree, look for the Latin name Celtis occidentalis (individual species of plants only have ONE Latin name, which is why they were created in the first place.)

Hackberry fruit look like tiny, dark brownish red cherries

Are Hackberry fruit edible?

YES! Hackberry fruit is edible for humans—and birds and wildlife, too. Some describe the taste as being like a date, or a tart cherry. Some say they taste disgusting. So what is the answer? As native gardening expert Carolyn Harstad said in her book Go Native, “You be the judge.” Try them for yourself in the summer.

Which butterflies use Hackberry as host plants?

Hackberries are incredibly important trees for helping butterfly populations. They are the host plants for the Tawny Emperor, Mourning Cloak, Question Mark, and Hackberry butterflies. (Here’s a quick host plant overview if you’re wondering what it means.)

Hackberry trees help all these butterflies!
Tawny Emperor Butterfly
Mourning Cloak Butterfly
Hackberry Butterfly
Question Mark Butterfly

How to grow Hackberry

Hackberries are a very easy tree to plant! Some native trees have a reputation for being hard to grow (I’m talking about you, Franklin trees!) Hackberries are exactly the opposite: they are almost impossible to plant in the wrong spot.

Or, to quote the amazing native gardener Carolyn Harstad again: “Hackberry will accept nearly any growing condition.” So there you go—plant away!

Hackberries thrive in so many types of soil

Even if you have clay soil, sandy soil, or rich black, nutrient-filled soil (sometimes called ‘loam’)—this tree will be happy. 

If the area is mostly moist or consistently dry—it doesn’t matter. Hackberries thrive in a wide range of areas.

And lots of different sunlight, too

Hackberries are happy in full sun to part shade. The only situation that Hackberries don’t like is full shade.

Hackberries native range is HUGE! (Map from USDA)

Where is Hackberry native?

Hackberries are native to 80% of the United States and more than half of Canada. Unless you live in western-most North America, you can plant a Hackberry.

What can I find a Hackberry tree to plant?

Now that you want a Hackberry, let’s set you up for success finding one. Sadly, most conventional nurseries do not stock this native tree (I know…it’s so silly how many non-native plants are better known.)

To make finding a Hackberry easier, here are four sourcing ideas:

Hackberry

Where can I find seeds and plants?

Finding native plants can be challenging (we partly blame Marie Antoinette.) To make it easier, we’ve assembled four sourcing ideas.

Native Plant Nurseries

Our list of native nurseries makes finding one a breeze

Online Communities

Local Facebook groups are a great plant source

Why not keep your garden expanding and plant some native shrubs and flowers alongside your Hackberry? Here are some pairing ideas…

What are good pairings for Hackberry trees?

There are so many amazing native shrubs, trees, and perennial flowers that pair beautifully with Hackberries. Some ideas include:

Native shrub pairings
songbird-eating-an-american-beautyberry-fruit

American Beautyberry

arrowwood-viburnum-flowers

Arrowwood Viburnum

flame-azalea-native-plant-shrub

Azalea

buttonbush-butterfly-plant-native-gardening

Buttonbush

mountain-laurel-native-shrub-flower

Mountain Laurel

ninebark-5755860_1280

Ninebark

Native perennial flower pairings

Hackberries offer so much goodness with minimum care. Spend a morning or afternoon planting this tree and help sustain butterflies, birds, and humans for the next 200+ years. Planting trees can seem daunting at times (what if we plant it in the wrong spot or the wrong soil?!?) If this sounds familiar, the easy-going nature of Hackberries ensures you’ll get it right. Make sure to try the berries for yourself before the birds eat them all in the summer, and take lots of pictures in the fall when the tree looks dipped in yellow paint. They are a beautiful tree for any Mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Northeast, or Southern garden. Happy planting!

UPDATED —
04/18/2024
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