Nearly everyone wants to know about native trees. Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a member of the birch family and is quite adaptable around here. It gets its name because its clusters of seeds look like the hops used to make beer. It is no relation to true hops at all.
Hop hornbeams generally grow 25 to 50 feet tall. They tolerate shade well but also thrive in the sun. Trees can grow in a wide variety of soils but prefer a moist environment when young. Once established they tolerate drought well and can grow in extremely acid soils to mildly alkaline ones.
These birch relatives usually develop vase shaped canopies when growing in partial to full shade. If established in the sun tree branch spread is often wider than tall. They make great specimen trees for courtyards.
Leaves have a distinctive toothed margin referred to as doubly serrated. Sharply pointed teeth are of two sizes. As trees develop the bark becomes light grayish brown and slightly shredded into vertical strips.
Trees have two types of flowers on the same plant. Male flowers look like green caterpillars at the tips of branches. Female ones are in clusters and have a pink tinge to them.
Fruits develop into balloon-like capsules and gradually begin to look like hops. These hop-like seeds can be quite interesting and persist well into the fall and winter. Fall foliage is yellow and makes a nice contrast to most other landscape plants.
One factor that renders them less attractive for landscape use is that they have a strong taproot. This can make them difficult to transplant successfully. Trees are slow growing, but they have a long lifespan. This makes them desirable for landscaping, at least for the client.
Trees also have incredibly hard wood. Resistance to storm damage is very high. Hop hornbeams won’t tolerate long periods of flooding, however.
Despite their hard wood, hop hornbeams are rarely used as timber trees. Often the wood has specialty uses though. Its hardness is prized for tool handles or walking canes.
Wood makes great firewood with high energy value. Logs will last a long time but they are difficult to split. This hard dense wood also makes high quality charcoal.
Wildlife generally won’t bother these trees. Birds normally don’t eat the seeds until nothing else is left and browsing animals like deer and rabbits don’t like the foliage either.
These trees have little value as human food either. You’d probably burn more calories separating the seeds from their covering than are in the seeds, themselves. However, seeds are not poisonous.
Some Native American tribes used inner bark and heartwood teas to treat sore throat, toothaches and kidney problems. It was also used in bathwater to soothe aching muscles. Very little recent information is available.
I’ve yet to find hop hornbeam in any local nurseries but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it soon. Natives are all the rage right now and usually some enterprising soul is ready and willing to take advantage of situations like that. That’s one thing that makes America great.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).