How to Grow a Hackberry Tree

Hackberry tree branch with sprawling green leaves under sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

The hackberry is an exceptionally hardy tree – in fact, experts have referred to it as “one tough tree.” The hackberry can be grown in various soils and locations, and they can thrive under a wide range of temperatures and conditions – including regions that see upwards of 50 inches of rainfall each year (although the tree itself actually doesn't require a lot of water). The hackberry has also been known to be able to withstand strong winds and even air pollution.

An energy-conserving shade tree, its toughness makes the hackberry an excellent choice for just about any landscape, provided you have ample space for its dense root system. These trees produce small, dark red berry-like fruits (drupes) that will turn dark purple as they mature in the mid-autumn months. The fruit will persist into the late winter months and serve as an important food source for a variety of bird species, including cardinals, flickers, robins, cedar waxwings, and brown thrashers (though that also means they are often damaged by other animals, such as deer).

The hackberry is also known for its distinctive bark surface, which has a corky texture (with warts at the base) and is often described as stucco-like. Its attractive serrated leaves range from dull green to glossy, and have unequal bases and tapered ends. In the fall months, the leaves will turn into a bland yellowish color before falling off.

Though they're native to North Dakota, hackberry trees can thrive throughout the United States. Though they are a member of the Elm family, they are part of a different genus (Celtis occidentalis). The wood of the hackberry tree is frequently used for boxes, crates, and firewood.

Botanical Name Celtis occidentalis
Common Name Hackberry tree
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 40-60 feet high, 25-45 feet wide
Sun Exposure Full sun, partial shade
Soil Type Organic, slightly moist
Soil pH 6-8
Bloom Time Summer/Fall
Flower Color Purple fruits
Hardiness Zones 2-9
Native Area North Dakota

How to Grow the Hackberry Tree

The hackberry tree typically grows at a medium to fast rate; growers can expect height increases of anywhere from 13" to upwards of 24" per year. Although they can withstand poor soil conditions, pollution, and drought with minimal damage, growers should know that hackberry trees will establish slowly right after planting, as these trees create a dense, tangled root system. After it establishes, the tree can reach heights of 40 to 60 feet at the crown and 25 to 45 feet across.

As such, you'll want to plant your hackberry tree at least 20 feet away from buildings, septic systems, and sidewalks since their roots become quite strong and invasive. When planting, be sure to thoroughly weed the area (aim for about 10 feet from where the tree will be planted) to eliminate competition for moisture and nutrients.

Potential hackberry growers should also know that a condition known as hackberry nipple gall is among the most common disease to infect these trees -- it will cause both raised bumps on the leaves as well as discoloration. Another cosmetic issue that affects hackberry trees is witch’s broom, which leads to dense, twisted overgrowth at the ends of branches and twigs. There are disease resistant varieties available.

Hackberry tree growing on hill with twisting branches

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Hackberry tree trunk with cork-like bark with markings closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Hackberry tree branch with waxy green serrated leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Hackberry tree branch with serrated leaves and small drupe fruits hanging

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

The hackberry tree will grow best in full sun. Try to plant your tree in a location where it will receive at least six hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight on a daily basis. These trees can also tolerate partial shade conditions.

Soil

As a low-maintenance, hardy tree, hackberry will grow well in a wide variety of soil types, including acidic, loamy, alkaline, rich, moist, clay, sandy, well-drained, and wet soils. However, they seem to prefer a slightly moist, organic soil.

Water

The first season after planting, you should water your hackberry tree every week (especially during dry conditions), so that the roots become established. After that, these trees generally only require water when the weather is particularly dry. These trees are known to be able to withstand both flooding and drought.

Temperature and Humidity

The hackberry tree can grow in a range of temperatures and humidity conditions.

Fertilizer

Although the hackberry tree doesn't necessarily require fertilizer, you can use either a granular, liquid, or stake variety. 

Propagating

Hackberry trees will propagate well from seeds. Just be sure to gather the seeds in the fall as soon as they've ripened. If kept moist, the seeds should sprout quickly and be kept in warm conditions. Hackberry fruit can be gathered in late summer or early fall, after they've ripened to a solid, purple-red color.

Related Varieties of Buckeye Trees

  • Green Cascade: A rare weeping variety of hackberry
  • Prairie Pride: A strong tree known to withstand disease and adverse conditions
  • Magnifica: A cross between a hackberry and sugarberry tree
  • Prairie Sentinel: A hackberry with a more narrow trunk

Pruning

Once they're established, the low-maintenance hackberry trees will require very little care beyond occasional pruning. Aim to prune them in the late winter while they’re dormant. Start by removing dead and diseased branches, as well as branches that are growing vertically or rubbing against each other.