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Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata Willd.)

Also known as sugar hackberry, southern hackberry, hackberry.

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Range - Expand

Native or Not Present
Introduced or Not Present
Native or Introduced

This tentative map is based on our own research. It may have limited data on Canada and/or Mexico, and there is some subjectivity in our assignment of plants as introduced vs. expanded. Read more in this blog post.


Sugarberry is primarily found in the better-drained portions of floodplains of rivers in the southeastern to south-central US. Where it overlaps in range with common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), a more northerly species, sugarberry tends to be found on lower sites and common hackberry on more upland sites. Especially outside the range of C. occidentalis, sugarberry can also occur, but uncommonly, on upland sites.

Sugarberry tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, but tends to have high nutrient requirements, including both nitrogen and calcium. The high nitrogen requirements prevent it from being an early colonizer of heavily-disturbed sites; it usually colonizes such sites 4-5 years after a disturbance, following the establishment of nitrogen-fixing plants. It tolerates a range of textures, from sandy loams, rocky, heavy black clay soils, and alluvial soils with a mix of particle sizes, but it tends to be most common on mineral-rich clay soils.

Its tolerance of flooding and water-saturated soils is lower than most other species found in floodplains. It can tolerate soils that are waterlogged for only about 10% of the growing season.

Sugarberry has fairly high shade-tolerance, and is able to establish under the shade of most bottomland trees, including willows, cottonwood, and most bottomland oaks.

Fire suppression has benefitted sugarberry in parts of its range, causing it to move into areas, particularly in Oklahoma and Texas, which had previously been dominated by grasslands or savanna. Aboveground parts of the plant are usually killed by fire, although it can resprout from the root collar. In other parts of its range, on sites able to support more shade-tolerant vegetation that could outcompete it, it may benefit from fire, such as where it occurs as a minor component of Florida pine flatwoods.

Life Cycle

Sugarberry is a short-lived, fast-growing tree.

Seedlings germinate above-ground, in spring, following a period of cold dormancy. It lacks a strong taproot and tends to develop strong lateral roots and be shallow-rooted overall.

Trees growing in shade tend to develop a shrubby form, branching frequently and lacking a single, straight trunk; it may persist for years as an understory shrub. These shaded individuals respond well to release when a gap opens, and may grow rapidly, but may keep their original form and may not live as long as a result. Trees that colonized brighter habitats in even-aged stands tend to have the straighest form.

First flowering starts around 15 years of age and tends to peak between 30-70 years; this age gets pushed back for trees initially suppressed by shade. Seed crops are relatively consistent from year to year.

Trees tend to begin flowering between March and May in various parts of the range, with seed maturing in September-October. Late frosts can damage flowers and reduce the seed crop. Fruits are bird-distributed.

Top-killed trees will resprout from the root collar, often vigorously.

Trees rarely live more than 150 years. Mortality can occur from many different causes, including fire, flooding, windthrow, or being overtopped and shaded out by more shade-tolerant trees. It is susceptible to ice damage, which is likely a factor in its northern range limits. The wood has poor rot resistance, and damage from fire, wind, or ice can provide entry points from rot which can eventually kill a tree. In the west of its range, oak mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) can cause significant stress to trees as well.

Sugarberry | Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) (About This Site)

Celtis laevigata (Sugarberry) | USDA PLANTS Database (About This Site)

Celtis laevigata (Sugarberry) | Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder (About This Site)

Sugarberry | Silvics of North America (About This Site)

Celtis laevigata | Biota of North America Project (BONAP) (About This Site)

Celtis laevigata | NatureServe Explorer (About This Site)

Celtis laevigata | Flora of North America (About This Site)

Celtis laevigata Willd. (Sugarberry, Southern Hackberry) | Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora (About This Site)