A sugar hackberry tree growing pondside in Kentucky. Although the species prefers moist soils, established trees are drought resistant.
Sugarberry is a member of the elm family and the kinship shows. Like other elms, sugarberry is a medium sized deciduous tree with a broad spreading, rounded crown. A mature forest-grown sugarberry is usually 60-80 ft (18-24 m) tall with a trunk 18 in (45 cm) in diameter and clear of branches for 30 ft (9 m) or so. Under ideal conditions, sugarberry is capable of reaching as much as 100 ft (30 m) in height with a trunk 2-3 ft (60-90 cm) in diameter. The deciduous leaves are alternate, 2-5 in (5-12 cm) long and 1-2 in (2.5-5 cm) wide. They are widest below the center, have an asymmetrical base, and taper to a long slender tip. The flowers are inconspicuous in small clusters originating at the leaf axils. The yellow to orange-red fleshy drupes are spherical, about a quarter inch (6-7 mm) in diameter, and contain a single hard seed. They ripen in autumn, turning dark purple. The fruits are sweet to the taste, but insipid.
It is the bark that is most distinctive about the sugarberry and also its close relative the hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). The bark of both is light silvery gray in color and mostly smooth, but splattered irregularly with corky “warts” about the size of pencil erasers.
The selection, ‘All Seasons’ has bright yellow fall color and is a little more cold hardy than the species.
Location Celtis laevigata is a forest tree native to southeastern North America from northeastern Mexico and East Texas north to southern Indiana and Missouri, east to southeastern Virginia and south throughout all of Florida. It is most common on clay soils where it occurs as an occasional component of hydric hammocks, bottomland forests and river flood plains, often growing in association with cottonwood (Populus deltoides), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), American elm (Ulmus americana) and various oaks (Quercus spp.).
Culture Light: Sugarberry is what the foresters call a “tolerant” species. That is, is can tolerate shade as a sapling while it bides its time beneath the taller forest trees. When a gap forms in the canopy, the sugarberry takes advantage of the sunlight, grows taller, and assumes its position among the big trees. That is, it responds to “release”, as the foresters would say. Moisture: Although they grow naturally in moist to wet soils, once established, sugarberries are remarkably tolerant of drought. Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 - 9. Propagation: The seeds of sugarberry lie dormant over winter and germinate in spring. The fruits do not need to be dried: merely sow them in a cold frame or in containers and leave outside. Sugarberry can also be propagated from softwood stem cuttings.
Sugar hackberry foliage and unripe fruit early in the season.
The sugar hackberry tree's gray bark is covered in warty ridges.
Sugarberry is a handsome tree with a fine to medium texture, slender, often pendulous branches, and a broad symmetrical crown. The leaves turn shades of yellow in autumn. Sugarberry is used as a shade tree and sometimes a street tree, although the weak wood makes it vulnerable to wind damage. Sugarberry trees are resistant to air pollution and tolerant of a wide range of soils (even compacted clay), from wet to dry and acidic to alkaline. Sugarberry is recommended for city conditions, parking lot islands and buffer strips, large lawns, median strips on highways, and remedial land reclamation. This is one of the best trees for planting in chalky, alkaline soils.
The wood is soft, not very strong and of little use for lumber. In autumn and winter the fleshy berries, often produced in great abundance, are eaten by many kinds of birds.
Immune to Dutch elm disease, sugarberry is a passable substitute for American elm (Ulmus americana). Sugarberry is a widely planted street tree in many southern cities, and especially in Savannah, Georgia.