Hornbeam is another native tree with winter landscape appeal

A couple weeks ago I wrote about river birch and its beauty in winter. It’s just one of several useful native species. Many are underused in my opinion.

One of my personal favorites for naturalizing is a birch relative with many different common names. Carpinus caroliniana is called American hornbeam, ironwood, blue beech, water beech and musclewood. Musclewood comes from the rippling trunks resembling well-muscled arms or legs. These stems with smooth gray bark are especially showy in winter when all leaves are gone. Bright orange fall color is attractive too.

American hornbeam is a small tree that usually grows as an understory tree in the eastern half of the country. The wood is very hard and rarely splits, but it dulls woodworking tools and is not used very much commercially. Historically, it was used to make tool handles, mallets, croquet balls, bowls and longbows.

Trees are often multi-trunked with a spreading growth habit. Branches resist wind and winter damage very well. Roots hold firm in the soil too. I think hornbeams make a great substitute for Japanese maple, particularly on wet sites where Japanese maple often strugles.

Around here ironwood is usually found in wet places with shade or only partial sun. Often you’ll find it growing around the periphery of your property or on the fringe of swampy spots.  These are places I like to accentuate its use.

Ironwood doesn’t transplant easily once plants are well established, so field growing and digging them could be problematic. That’s likely one of the biggest reasons they aren’t used more in the landscape industry.

Trees are also slow-growing. Individual specimens could remain healthy in a landscape for well over 50 years. That’s good for homeowners but bad for nurseries and many don’t raise them.

I’d like to see that change for three reasons. First, American hornbeam is a native species. Second, we could incorporate more variety into our landscapes. Finally, they resist damage by wind and winter storms.

Trees usually don’t flower until they are about 15 years old. Hornbeams have separate male and female flowers but both reside on the same plant. Flowers aren’t especially showy but the seed clusters are. They usually persist until early winter.

These clusters contain structures called nutlets. They are edible and have flavor similar to hazelnuts, but they’re small and cleaning enough for a meal would probably burn more energy than you’d derive from them. Squirrels and other wildlife like them though.

While squirrels and birds eat the seeds, few animals feed off the foliage. Deer generally leave hornbeam alone unless nothing else is available. Rabbits don’t fool with them much either. Beavers sometimes eat the bark, but beavers aren’t a major landscape menace, at least in most places.

Relatively few insects and diseases are a problem for this species. Drought tolerance is not

Naturalized hornbeam showing fluted bark

Naturalized hornbeam trunk showing fluted bark

particularly good, especially in sunny locations. However, productivity under wet conditions balances that out. Trees also require little pruning. Also, several species of butterflies are attracted to them. Plusses definitely outweigh minuses.

Hornbeam in mid February growing under a loblolly pine canopy

Hornbeam in mid February growing under a loblolly pine canopy


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com). I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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