Easily and efficiently make your ActiveRecord model support hierarchies
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Closure Tree Build Status

Closure Tree is a mostly-API-compatible replacement for the ancestry, acts_as_tree and awesome_nested_set gems, giving you:

See Bill Karwin's excellent Models for hierarchical data presentation for a description of different tree storage algorithms.


Note that closure_tree only supports Rails 3.0 and later, and has test coverage for MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite.

  1. Add this to your Gemfile: gem 'closure_tree'

  2. Run bundle install

  3. Add acts_as_tree to your hierarchical model(s). There are a number of options you can pass in, too.

  4. Add a migration to add a parent_id column to the model you want to act_as_tree. You may want to also add a column for deterministic ordering of children, but that's optional.

    class AddParentIdToTag < ActiveRecord::Migration
      def change
        add_column :tag, :parent_id, :integer

    Note that if the column is null, the tag will be considered a root node.

  5. Add a database migration to store the hierarchy for your model. By default the table name will be the model's table name, followed by "_hierarchies". Note that by calling acts_as_tree, a "virtual model" (in this case, TagsHierarchy) will be added automatically, so you don't need to create it.

    class CreateTagHierarchies < ActiveRecord::Migration
      def change
        create_table :tag_hierarchies, :id => false do |t|
          t.integer  :ancestor_id, :null => false   # ID of the parent/grandparent/great-grandparent/... tag
          t.integer  :descendant_id, :null => false # ID of the target tag
          t.integer  :generations, :null => false   # Number of generations between the ancestor and the descendant. Parent/child = 1, for example.
        # For "all progeny of…" selects:
        add_index :tag_hierarchies, [:ancestor_id, :descendant_id], :unique => true
        # For "all ancestors of…" selects
        add_index :tag_hierarchies, [:descendant_id]
  6. Run rake db:migrate

  7. If you're migrating from another system where your model already has a parent_id column, run Tag.rebuild! and the …_hierarchy table will be truncated and rebuilt.

    If you're starting from scratch you don't need to call rebuild!.



Create a root node:

grandparent = Tag.create(:name => 'Grandparent')

Child nodes are created by appending to the children collection:

parent = grandparent.children.create(:name => 'Parent')

Or by giving the parent to the constructor:

child1 = Tag.create(:name => 'First Child', :parent => parent)

Or by appending to the children collection:

child2 = Tag.new(:name => 'Second Child')
parent.children << child2

Or by calling the "add_child" method:

child3 = Tag.new(:name => 'Third Child')
parent.add_child child3


=> ["Grandparent", "Parent", "First Child", "Second Child", "Third Child"]

=> ["Grandparent", "Parent", "First Child"]


We can do all the node creation and add_child calls with one method call:

child = Tag.find_or_create_by_path(["grandparent", "parent", "child"])

You can find as well as find_or_create by "ancestry paths". Ancestry paths may be built using any column in your model. The default column is name, which can be changed with the :name_column option provided to acts_as_tree.

Note that any other AR fields can be set with the second, optional attributes argument.

child = Tag.find_or_create_by_path(%w{home chuck Photos"}, {:tag_type => "File"})

This will pass the attribute hash of {:name => "home", :tag_type => "File"} to Tag.find_or_create_by_name if the root directory doesn't exist (and {:name => "chuck", :tag_type => "File"} if the second-level tag doesn't exist, and so on).

Moving nodes around the tree

Nodes can be moved around to other parents, and closure_tree moves the node's descendancy to the new parent for you:

d = Tag.find_or_create_by_path %w(a b c d)
h = Tag.find_or_create_by_path %w(e f g h)
e = h.root
d.add_child(e) # "d.children << e" would work too, of course
=> ["a", "b", "c", "d", "e", "f", "g", "h"]

Nested hashes

hash_tree provides a method for rendering a subtree as an ordered nested hash:

b = Tag.find_or_create_by_path %w(a b)
a = b.parent
b2 = Tag.find_or_create_by_path %w(a b2)
d1 = b.find_or_create_by_path %w(c1 d1)
c1 = d1.parent
d2 = b.find_or_create_by_path %w(c2 d2)
c2 = d2.parent

=> {a => {b => {c1 => {d1 => {}}, c2 => {d2 => {}}}, b2 => {}}}

Tag.hash_tree(:limit_depth => 2)
=> {a => {b => {}, b2 => {}}}

=> {b => {c1 => {d1 => {}}, c2 => {d2 => {}}}}

b.hash_tree(:limit_depth => 2)
=> {b => {c1 => {}, c2 => {}}}

HT: ancestry and elhoyos

Available options

When you include acts_as_tree in your model, you can provide a hash to override the following defaults:

  • :parent_column_name to override the column name of the parent foreign key in the model's table. This defaults to "parent_id".
  • :hierarchy_table_name to override the hierarchy table name. This defaults to the singular name of the model + "_hierarchies".
  • :dependent determines what happens when a node is destroyed. Defaults to nullify.
    • :nullify will simply set the parent column to null. Each child node will be considered a "root" node. This is the default.
    • :delete_all will delete all descendant nodes (which circumvents the destroy hooks)
    • :destroy will destroy all descendant nodes (which runs the destroy hooks on each child node)
  • :name_column used by #find_or_create_by_path, #find_by_path, and ancestry_path instance methods. This is primarily useful if the model only has one required field (like a "tag").
  • :order used to set up deterministic ordering

Accessing Data

Class methods

  • Tag.root returns an arbitrary root node
  • Tag.roots returns all root nodes
  • Tag.leaves returns all leaf nodes
  • Tag.hash_tree returns an ordered, nested hash that can be depth-limited.

Instance methods

  • tag.root returns the root for this node
  • tag.root? returns true if this is a root node
  • tag.child? returns true if this is a child node. It has a parent.
  • tag.leaf? returns true if this is a leaf node. It has no children.
  • tag.leaves is scoped to all leaf nodes in self_and_descendants.
  • tag.depth returns the depth, or "generation", for this node in the tree. A root node will have a value of 0.
  • tag.parent returns the node's immediate parent. Root nodes will return nil.
  • tag.children is a has_many of immediate children (just those nodes whose parent is the current node).
  • tag.ancestors is a ordered scope of [ parent, grandparent, great grandparent, … ]. Note that the size of this array will always equal tag.depth.
  • tag.ancestor_ids is an array of the IDs of the ancestors.
  • tag.self_and_ancestors returns a scope containing self, parent, grandparent, great grandparent, etc.
  • tag.siblings returns a scope containing all nodes with the same parent as tag, excluding self.
  • tag.sibling_ids returns an array of the IDs of the siblings.
  • tag.self_and_siblings returns a scope containing all nodes with the same parent as tag, including self.
  • tag.descendants returns a scope of all children, childrens' children, etc., excluding self ordered by depth.
  • tag.descendant_ids returns an array of the IDs of the descendants.
  • tag.self_and_descendants returns a scope of all children, childrens' children, etc., including self, ordered by depth.
  • tag.hash_tree returns an ordered, nested hash that can be depth-limited.
  • tag.destroy will destroy a node and do something to its children, which is determined by the :dependent option passed to acts_as_tree.

Polymorphic hierarchies with STI

Polymorphic models using single table inheritance (STI) are supported:

  1. Create a db migration that adds a String type column to your model
  2. Subclass the model class. You only need to add acts_as_tree to your base class:
class Tag < ActiveRecord::Base
class WhenTag < Tag ; end
class WhereTag < Tag ; end
class WhatTag < Tag ; end

Deterministic ordering

By default, children will be ordered by your database engine, which may not be what you want.

If you want to order children alphabetically, and your model has a name column, you'd do this:

class Tag < ActiveRecord::Base
  acts_as_tree :order => 'name'

If you want a specific order, add a new integer column to your model in a migration:

t.integer :sort_order

and in your model:

class OrderedTag < ActiveRecord::Base
  acts_as_tree :order => 'sort_order'

When you enable order, you'll also have the following new methods injected into your model:

  • tag.siblings_before is a scope containing all nodes with the same parent as tag, whose sort order column is less than self. These will be ordered properly, so the last element in scope will be the sibling immediately before self
  • tag.siblings_after is a scope containing all nodes with the same parent as tag, whose sort order column is more than self. These will be ordered properly, so the first element in scope will be the sibling immediately "after" self

If your order column is an integer attribute, you'll also have these:

  • tag.add_sibling_before(sibling_node) which will

    1. move tag to the same parent as sibling_node,
    2. decrement the sort_order values of the nodes before the sibling_node by one, and
    3. set tag's order column to 1 less than the sibling_node's value.
  • tag.add_sibling_after(sibling_node) which will

    1. move tag to the same parent as sibling_node,
    2. increment the sort_order values of the nodes after the sibling_node by one, and
    3. set tag's order column to 1 more than the sibling_node's value.
root = OrderedTag.create(:name => "root")
a = OrderedTag.create(:name => "a", :parent => "root")
b = OrderedTag.create(:name => "b")
c = OrderedTag.create(:name => "c")

=> ["a", "b"]

=> ["b", "a"]

=> ["a", "c", "b"]

=> ["a", "b", "c"]


Closure tree is tested under every combination of

  • Ruby 1.8.7 and Ruby 1.9.3
  • The latest Rails 3.0, 3.1, and 3.2 branches, and
  • MySQL, PostgreSQL, and SQLite.

Change log


  • Reverted .gemspec mistake that changed add_development_dependency to add_runtime_dependency


Fixed issue 15:

  • "parent" is now attr_accessible, which adds support for constructor-provided parents.
  • updated readme accordingly


  • Merged calebphillips' patch for a more efficient leaves query


  • Added support for partially-unsaved hierarchies issue 13:
a = Tag.new(name: "a")
b = Tag.new(name: "b")
a.children << b



  • Added ancestor_ids, descendant_ids, and sibling_ids
  • Added example spec to solve issue 9


  • Added support for deterministic ordering of nodes.


  • Switched to using has_many :though rather than has_and_belongs_to_many



  • Added support for ActiveRecord's whitelist_attributes (Make sure you read the Rails Security Guide, and enable config.active_record.whitelist_attributes in your config/application.rb ASAP!)


  • Fix for ancestry-loop detection (performed by a validation, not through raising an exception in before_save)


  • Support 3.2.0's fickle deprecation of InstanceMethods (Thanks, jheiss)!


  • Support for polymorphic trees
  • find_by_path and find_or_create_by_path signatures changed to support constructor attributes
  • tested against Rails 3.1.3


  • Had to increment the major version, as rebuild! will need to be called by prior consumers to support the new leaves class and instance methods.
  • Tag deletion is supported now along with :dependent => :destroy and :dependent => :delete_all
  • Switched from default rails plugin directory structure to rspec
  • Support for running specs under different database engines: export DB ; for DB in sqlite3 mysql postgresql ; do rake ; done

Thanks to