By: Amy Grant
If you aren’t a resident of the southeastern United States, then you may have never heard of sugar hackberry trees. Also referred to as sugarberry or southern hackberry, what is a sugarberry tree? Keep reading to find out and learn some interesting sugar hackberry facts.
Native to the southeastern United States, sugar hackberry trees (Celtis laevigata) can be found growing along streams and flood plains. Although usually found in moist to wet soils, the tree adapts well to dry conditions.
This medium to large deciduous tree grows to around 60-80 feet in height with upright branching and a rounded spreading crown. With a relatively short life, less than 150 years, sugarberry is covered with light gray bark that is either smooth or slightly corky. In fact, its species name (laevigata) means smooth. Young branches are covered with tiny hairs that eventually become smooth. The leaves are 2-4 inches long and 1-2 inches wide and mildly serrated. These lance-shaped leaves are pale green on both surfaces with obvious veining.
In the spring, from April through May, sugar hackberry trees flower with insignificant greenish blooms. Females are solitary and male flowers are borne in clusters. Female blossoms become sugar hackberry fruit, in the form of berry-like drupes. Each drupe contains one round brown seed surrounded by sweet flesh. These deep purple drupes are a great favorite of many species of wildlife.
Sugar hackberry is a southern version of common or northern hackberry (C. occidentalis) but differs from its northern cousin in several ways. First, the bark is less corky, whereas its northern counterpart exhibits distinctive warty bark. The leaves are narrower, it has a better resistance to witches’ broom, and is less winter hardy. Also, sugar hackberry fruit is juicier and sweeter.
Speaking of the fruit, is sugarberry edible? Sugarberry was commonly used by many Native American tribes. The Comanche beat the fruit to a pulp and then mixed it with animal fat, rolled it into balls and roasted it in the fire. The resulting balls had a long shelf life and became nutritious food reserves.
Native people also had other uses for sugarberry fruit. The Houma used a decoction of bark and ground up shells to treat venereal disease, and a concentrate made from its bark was used to treat sore throats. The Navajo used leaves and branches, boiled down, to make a dark brown or red dye for wool.
Some people still pick and use the fruit. Mature fruit can be picked from late summer until winter. It can then be air dried or soak the fruit overnight and rub the exterior off on a screen.
Sugarberry can be propagated via seed or cuttings. Seed must be stratified prior to use. Store wet seeds in a sealed container in the refrigerator at 41 degrees F. (5 C.) for 60-90 days. The stratified seed can then be sown in the spring or non-stratified seeds in the fall.
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Celtis laevigata is a medium-sized tree native to North America. Common names include sugarberry, Southern hackberry, or in the southern U.S. sugar hackberry or just hackberry.
Sugarberry is easily confused with common hackberry (C. occidentalis) where the range overlaps. Sugarberry has narrower leaves which are smoother above. The species can also be distinguished by habitat: where the ranges overlap, common hackberry occurs primarily in upland areas, whereas sugarberry occurs mainly in bottomland areas.
Sugarberry's range extends from the Eastern United States west to Texas and south to northeastern Mexico.  It is also found on the island of Bermuda. 
A relative of the Elm tree, Sugarberry trees are adaptable to a wide range of light and moisture levels. Often planted for its purple-red fruit that attracts a wide variety of birds, Sugarberry can be used as a native alternative for Chinese and Siberian Elms.
Unlike its more northern sibling Common Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis, Sugarberry has smooth bark. Depending on where you are located, Sugarberry may be common, bordering on invasive, to fairly uncommon:
In general, Sugarberry requires well drained soil, it cannot withstand constantly wet soils but will tolerate extended dry periods. In many locations it is considered a ‘trash tree’, one that is undesirable since it can grow vigorously when located in a garden with ideal conditions. One NABA Butterfly Gardener, Lenora Larson, has allowed us to reprint her article on Common Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis. Her suggestions for managing Common Hackberry in a garden setting apply equally well to Sugarberry.
Read more about the use of Common Hackberry trees for butterfly gardening in a reprint of an article from Butterfly Gardener magazine: Caterpillar Food Plant: Hackberry
Importance as a butterfly nectar source:
Sugarberry is used as a nectar source but it’s popularity varies by location.
Importance as a caterpillar food source:
Importance as a caterpillar food source: Sugarberry trees provide many butterfly species with caterpillar food. Although the activity is usually high above easy viewing levels, some guidelines for caterpillar identification are:
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These trees can grow up to the height of 60 feet and have a spread of around the same. They are broad crowned and often have an erratic shape.
The foliage of the common hackberry is asymmetrical, rough, and dull green in color. They are ovate in shape and around 4 – 6 inches long with a toothed and pointed tip.
The bark of these trees is warty and covered with ridges all over the trunk. They are often seen in shades of light gray.
Fruits of the common hackberry are small but fleshy bearing a single seed in them. They are found in an array of colors ranging from green to red and at times a gorgeous dark purple, attracting many birds and animals to gorge on them. The fruits are safe for animals, birds, and humans alike.
In fact, the Native Americans crushed these berries in order to extract their flavor to add to their animal fats, corn, and other foods.
The hackberry flowers grow in clusters in the spring. Their beautiful white colors in contrast to the dark green hues of the leaves attract many butterflies and birds towards them.
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With winged and four-legged companions come other pests such as insects, fungal infections, and parasitic plants. The hackberry trees are prone to insects and fungal infections, which feed off them. Most common of the insects that the tree attracts are the hackberry bud gall maker, hackberry petiole gall psyllid, hackberry blister gall psyllid, and hackberry nipple gall maker.
Fungi that mostly affect this tree are the witches’ broom disease, which causes rosette formation on the branches. Another such problem of infestation is the oak fungus, which causes the roots to rot.
Parasitic plants like the mistletoe use the tree’s good colonizer and kill the tree over a period of time.
If butterflies are what you seek, then these trees are ideal for attracting Leila hackberry butterfly (Asterocampa leilia). The caterpillars of these butterflies resemble the green leaves with thorns, similar to those on the trees. On maturity, the caterpillars morph into gorgeous orange butterflies with black spots.
These trees also play host to the Snout butterfly (Libytheana bachmanii) which lays its eggs among the foliage.
Apart from butterflies, these trees also attract fauna, viz., ring-necked pheasant, quail, wild turkey, prairie chicken, robins, cedar waxwing, deer, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and other small mammals. The tree relies on these little critters to eat and then disperse the seeds in order to reproduce.
These trees are deep-rooted and often used to bring erosion under control. Their long and widespread branches often work well as windbreakers, while the roots prevent the soil from eroding.
Hackberry Tree held special medical value for the Native Americans, who used the bark of the hackberry tree for problems, viz., curing sore throat or venereal diseases, regulating the menstrual cycle, or even for inducing abortions. The berries were often used to add flavor to food, while the wood from these trees were also used for their prayer ceremonies.
If you are wanting a tree that will attract a variety of birds and other animals, the hackberry will do just that. This is due to the fact that it produces pea-sized berries that attracts birds and animals to it. These berries start off a light orange and will turn to a deep purple color when they are ripe, which happens in the fall. The hackberry tree actually relies on the wildlife that enjoys the taste of its berries to spread its seeds and help it reproduce. The berries are safe for human consumption and the taste has been known to be similar to dates.
The common hackberry is a medium-sized tree, 9 to 15 metres (30 to 50 ft) in height,  with a slender trunk. In the best conditions in the southern Mississippi Valley area, it can grow to 40 metres (130 ft). It has a handsome round-topped head and pendulous branches. It prefers rich moist soil, but will grow on gravelly or rocky hillsides. The roots are fibrous and it grows rapidly.  In the western part of its range, trees may still grow up to 29 m (95 ft).  The maximum age attained by hackberry is probably between 150 and 200 years in ideal conditions. 
The bark is light brown or silvery gray, broken on the surface into thick appressed scales and sometimes roughened with excrescences the pattern is very distinctive.  The remarkable bark pattern is even more pronounced in younger trees, with the irregularly-spaced ridges resembling long geologic palisades of sedimentary [layered] rock formations when viewed edge-wise [cross-section]. Coins as large as USA quarters can easily be laid flat against the valleys, which may be as deep as an adult human finger.
The bark of the same tree on the campus of the University of Chicago
The ridges on the bark of a tree at the Jevremovac Botanical Garden in Serbia
Closeup of the ridges on the bark of a street tree in Serbia
The branchlets are slender, and their color transitions from light green to red brown and finally to dark red-brown. The winter buds are axillary, ovate, acute, somewhat flattened, one-fourth of an inch long, light brown. The bud scales enlarge with the growing shoot, and the innermost become stipules. No terminal bud is formed.
The leaves are alternately arranged on the branchlets, ovate to ovate-lanceolate, often slightly falcate,  5–12 cm (2– 4 3 ⁄4 in) long by 3–9 cm ( 1 1 ⁄4 – 3 1 ⁄2 in),  very oblique at the base, with a pointed tip. The margin is serrate (toothed), except at the base which is mostly entire (smooth). The leaf has three nerves, the midrib and primary veins prominent. The leaves come out of the bud conduplicate with slightly involute margins, pale yellow green, downy when full grown are thin, bright green, rough above, paler green beneath. In autumn they turn to a light yellow. Petioles slender, slightly grooved, hairy. Stipules varying in form, caducous. 
Yellow leaves of a tree in autumn at the Jevremonac Botanical Garden
Young leaves are tomentous
The flowers are greenish and appear in May, soon after the leaves. They are polygamo-monœcious, meaning that there are three kinds: staminate (male), pistillate (female), perfect (both female and male). They are born on slender drooping pedicels. 
The calyx is light yellow green, five-lobed, divided nearly to the base lobes linear, acute, more or less cut at the apex, often tipped with hairs, imbricate in bud. There is no corolla. 
There are five stamens, which are hypogynous the filaments are white, smooth, slightly flattened and gradually narrowed from base to apex in the bud incurved, bringing the anthers face to face, as flower opens they abruptly straighten anthers extrorse, oblong, two-celled cells opening longitudinally. 
The pistil has a two-lobed style and one-celled superior ovary containing solitary ovules. The fruit is a fleshy, oblong drupe, 1 ⁄4 to 3 ⁄8 in (0.64 to 0.95 cm) long, tipped with the remnants of style, dark purple when ripe. It is borne on a slender stem and ripens in September and October. It remains on the branches during winter.  The endocarp contains significant amounts of biogenic carbonate that is nearly pure aragonite. 
The common hackberry is native to North America from southern Ontario and Quebec, through parts of New England, south to North Carolina-(Appalachia), west to northern Oklahoma, and north to South Dakota. Hackberry's range overlaps with the sugarberry (Celtis laevigata), making it difficult to establish the exact range of either species in the South. Although there is little actual overlap, in the western part of its range the common hackberry is sometimes confused with the smaller netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata), which has a similar bark. Hackberry grows in many different habitats, although it prefers bottomlands and soils high in limestone. Its shade tolerance is greatly dependent on conditions. In favorable conditions its seedlings will persist under a closed canopy, but in less favorable conditions it can be considered shade intolerant.
The leaves are eaten by four gall-producing insects of the genus Pachypsylla, which do not cause serious damage to the tree. A number of insects and fungi cause rapid decay of dead branches or roots of the tree.
The small berries, hackberries, are eaten by a number of birds,  including robins and cedar waxwings,  and mammals. Most seeds are dispersed by animals, but some seeds are also dispersed by water.
The tree serves as a butterfly larval host, particularly the hackberry emperor. 
Hackberry's wood is light yellow heavy, soft, coarse-grained, not strong. It rots easily, making the wood undesirable commercially, although it is occasionally used for fencing and cheap furniture. Specific gravity, 0.7287 weight of cu. ft., 45.41 lb (20.60 kg).
Hackberry is only occasionally used as a street or landscape tree, although its tolerance for urban conditions makes it well suited to this role. Sombor in Serbia and Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, are known for the extensive use of hackberry (in the latter case along with closely related but Eurasian Celtis australis) as a street tree.
The tree's pea-sized berries are edible, ripening in early September. Unlike most fruits, the berries are remarkably high in calories from fat, carbohydrate, and protein, and these calories are easily digestible without cooking or preparation.  Omaha Native Americans ate the berries casually, while the Dakota used them as a flavor for meat, pounding them fine, seeds and all. The Pawnee also pounded the berries fine, added a little fat, and mixed them with parched corn. 
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Keeler, Harriet L. (1900). Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 249–252.
Hackberry species occour throughout texas five species are trees and one species is shrublike. The two species most common across the state are Celtis Laevigata, also called sugarberry or sugar hackberry, and C. reticulate, also known as netleaf hackberry or western hackberry.
The trees have strong tap roots and many shallow, spreading roots. The bark is mostly smooth and gray, with small bumps or warts on the older stems. The wood has a charecteristic yellowish white color.
The leaves of hackberry have a rough texture, like sandpaper. The leaf underside has large, netlike veins. Although not noticeable, the flowers occur in early spring and develop into rounded, succulent, reddish brown fruits (drupes) that persists on the tree throughout the winter.
The forage value is fair for the wildlife and poor for livestock.