The wood commonly referred to as Hackberry is known to botanists as Celtis occidentalis. C. occidentalis is widely distributed in the eastern United States from the southern New England States through central New York west in southern Ontario to North and South Dakota. Northern outliers are found in southern Quebec, western Ontario, southern Manitoba, and southeastern Wyoming. The range extends south from western Nebraska to northeastern Colorado and northwestern Texas, then east to Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, with scattered occurrences in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.
While that all seems clear enough, in the lumber trade, “Hackberry” can also, and in its native range frequently does, include C. laevigata, a closely related species that does, however, have a different, although frequently overlapping, native range. C. laevigata ranges south from southeastern Virginia to southern Florida, west to central Texas and northeastern Mexico, and north to western Oklahoma, southern Kansas, Missouri, southern Illinois, southern Indiana, and western Kentucky. It is local in Maryland, the Rio Grande Valley, and northeastern Mexico. Its range overlaps the southern part of the range of C. occidentalis.
In distinguishing between the two species, common names might provide help in that C. occidentalis is commonly known as common hackberry, sugarberry, nettletree, beaverwood, northern hackberry, and American hackberry. C laevigata is commonly known as sugarberry, sugar hackberry, hackberry, Texas sugarberry, southern hackberry, and lowland hackberry.
Outside of common name applications, which vary widely depending on geographic location and which are, after all, common and not scientific names, other means of identification rely on knowing where the wood was harvested because while the native ranges of the two species do overlap in the extreme southern/northern ranges, the most commonly occurring regional woods are the one most likely to be harvested in any given area. Granted, it is frequently impossible to know with any certainty exactly where a wood sample was harvested in any case. And, if one considers the wide proliferation of Celtis sp. trees as shade giving ornamentals, then even the region or location of harvest can be misleading.
Fortunately for woodworkers the distinction rarely matters as the two species share most all of the characteristics that matter when using the wood itself as opposed to the entire tree. Both trees make excellent shade trees as well as providing abundant fruit for a variety of wild species, especially birds, but C. laevigata, is more widely planted outside its native range in the western parts of North America although C. occidentalis is more commonly planted in Midwestern cities because of its greater tolerance of varying soil conditions.
For our purposes as wood turners, the exact species identification is of no great relevance which is helpful because most of my examples of Celtis sp. sold as “Hackberry” originated in either Missouri, where both species are common, or in the Carolinas where either species is possible although C. laevigata would be significantly more likely. Perhaps I have both species and am just unaware of it but, regardless, as I noted, it doesn’t ultimately matter for our purposes.
From this point onward, for sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to both C. laevigata and C. occidentalis simply as Hackberry.
The heartwood of Hackberry is usually a light brown to gray color while the highly contrasting sapwood is a light yellow color. Because of the width of the sapwood relative to the heartwood it is quite common for many turning blanks to be composed of mostly, if not entirely, sapwood.
Hackberry is quite likely to very quickly become discolored by fungal staining which often causes a bluish coloration, although other colors are possible depending on the species of fungi which attack, if the wood is not processed and dried immediately. However, in many instances, this coloration, known in woodworking circles as “spalting,” is desirable and increases prices when it occurs.