Wood of the Month:

Hackberry Fans Make a Case For an Underrated Species

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Celtis occidentalis of the family Ulmaceae.

COMMON NAMES

Hackberry, sugarberry, bastard elm, hack-tree, hoop ash, nettletree.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Height typically ranges from 30 to 70 feet, but trees can grow to 130 feet tall. Average weight is 40 to 50 lbs per cubic foot, with a specific gravity of 0.64.

PROPERTIES

Hackberry lumber is moderately heavy and strong in bending. It is moderately weak in compression parallel to the grain, and rated moderately hard to hard. It has a very good steam bending rating. It is high in shock resistance, but low in stiffness. The wood has some shrinkage, but keeps its shape in seasoning. Cutting edges should be sharp to avoid the wood’s blunting effect. The wood works well with hand and machine tools. It nails and screws well and glues and stains satisfactorily. Hackberry wood dries readily with little degrade. It can be subject to blue sap stain. Hackberry takes a finish well and can be finished in its natural color.

Hackberry (hack·ber·ry) is in the Elm family and grows throughout the eastern United States and in southern Canada. Hackberry is particularly suited to the conditions in the Mississippi Valley, especially in the lower part of the Valley. Ideal growing conditions for hackberry include plentiful moisture and rich soils, but hackberry is also a hearty tree that grows in a variety of climates.

Jim Hartzell, owner of Hartzell Wood Stock in Lime Springs, IA, says he thinks hackberry is underappreciated as a domestic wood suited to furniture and flooring applications. “Hackberry is a wonderful wood, but most hackberry is used to make pallets and railroad ties,” says Hartzell, who logs hackberry and other woods and sells it. “(Hackberry) is an interesting wood that isn’t getting the recognition it is due.” Hartzell says hackberry ranges in color depending on where it grows. In some parts of the country the heartwood and sapwood are similar in color, but in the ideal growing conditions like the Mississippi Valley, the heartwood will have more color. “Hackberry from the south is a lot lighter in color as is hackberry from Illinois. Hackberry is like ash that way; in both, the color will vary ’’

Most hackberry has a moderately fine and uniform texture, but some will yield an interesting figure, featuring alternating light and dark streaks. Hartzell says the wood can have a very wild grain pattern. Sometimes it is interlocked.

Donald Culross Peattie, in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, says hackberry “has a figure rather like that of ash and takes polish well.”

Hartzell sells hackberry flooring and says he thinks the wood makes superior flooring that offers great wearability and a good look. “People don’t always realize that hackberry is harder than walnut and cherry.’’

Care should be taken while drying the wood, to maintain the color. “Hackberry is one of the woods that should be cut in winter for the best color and to avoid ‘stick stain’ when it is dried,” Hartzell says.

Similarities and Differences

Hackberry belongs to the Elm family, Ulmaceae, and has many similarities to elm trees. In Hugh Johnson’s Encyclopedia of Trees, he says, ‘‘It is the fruit that distinguishes hackberries from the elms.” Hackberry trees yield red, yellow or blackish berries compared with elm’s “dry, flattened or winged fruit.”

Hackberry trees will root deep, Johnson says. “Their deep roots, once they have found their depth, are virtually drought-proof,” he says. Johnson adds that the best part about common hackberry trees in North America is their “highly original bark,” which is described as corky.

Most hackberry comes from Celtis occidentalis, but another similar species, Celtis laevigata, or sugarberry, is sometimes sold commercially under the name hackberry. Sugarberry is also another common name for hackberry trees, which further confuses things.

Alternate names for C. laevigata include Mississippi hackberry and sugar hackberry. The trees are very similar and grow in many of the same areas, although sugarberry grows in the Southern and Southern Atlantic states. For both species, the sapwood is usually pale yellow, although in some trees the sapwood has a green or gray tint.

Hackberry’s Uses

Hackberry’s uses include pallets and railroad ties, furniture, cabinet work, sports and gym equipment, tool handles, farm implements and vehicle bodies. Most hackberry is cut for lumber, but some is used as dimension stock and some is cut into veneer.

Peattie writes hackberry is used for barrel hoops — since it is tough and flexible — and fence posts and the inevitable boxes and crates.

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