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Biodiversity Blog

 

The Trees of BFL: Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata)

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The sugar hackberry or sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) is a very common tree species at Brackenridge Field Lab. The tree has distinctive warty, gray bark, sometimes turning tan in very old individuals. The leaves have asymmetrical bases, are tapered with sharply pointed tips, and smooth or toothed margins. These trees grow quite tall, 60 to 80 feet. They also create fruit that is about ¼ inch in diameter, and a favorite amongst the Cedar Waxwings that pass through Austin during cooler months. Mammals also eat the berries that fall to the ground, and their scat will be full of the partially digested berries. This aids in seed dispersal.

The sugarberry is a larval host plant for several butterflies, including: hackberry emperor (Asterocampa celtis), tawny emperor (Asterocampa clyton), question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), snout butterflies (Libytheana carinenta and L. carinata), and mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). For the hackberry emperor, the leaves of Celtis species are the sole food source for its caterpillars.

These trees grow in the eastern two-thirds of the state, and is the only hackberry species that is found in all the ten vegetational areas of Texas.

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 Hackberry butterfly laying eggs. (Photo: Larry Gilbert)

The wood of sugar hackberries is light in color and used most commonly for furniture.  

They are a tough and somewhat drought resistant tree, and grow very fast in just about any soil type. However, they are prone to being parasitized by mistletoe, which can rob the tree of nutrients and weaken it. In addition to mistletoe, this species is prone to gall-forming insects and leaf chewers, but as ratty as the tree looks with all this activity, the tree still manages to survive. Dr. Larry Gilbert, Director of BFL, suspects this might be due to root microbial associations and powerful endophytes, both which would assist the plant in accessing nutrients.

 

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