October 1998
Plant of the Month

American Horn Beam

American Horn Beam,Carpinus caroliniana also called Blue Beech, Ironwood, and Musclewood.

Picture this, you've offered to help friends pick out a tree.  They're looking for a tree that will fit into their smaller lot.  It should tolerate some shade (Well . . . maybe mostly shade).  Periodically it will be in standing water.  Good fall color would be nice and winter interest too.  Their lot is "Up North" so the tree should be really hardy, and low maintenance.  As avid bird watchers they would appreciate its attractiveness to birds.  Oh, and it should be a very nice looking tree. 

Are you ready to give up?  Don't!  American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) fills the bill.  This tree is native from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and south to Florida and Texas.  It's  hardy from zones 3 to 9.   Usually found as an under-story plant along rivers and streams, it is fine for heavy shade and wet areas.  Hornbeam performs best in rich, moist, slightly acid soil.  However, it is highly adaptable and will perform and prosper on drier sites and in clay or alkaline soils.  A handsome, long lived, small to medium sized tree, it is well adapted for use on small properties and urban gardens.  It grows slowly to 20-30' in height and width.  Averaging 8-10' in 10 years, uniform moisture and fertilizer will accelerate growth.  Often called "Blue Beech" for the dark bluish green foliage with serrated edges similar to Beech.  The leaves are narrower than Beech and have a graceful appearance.  Stems are shiny, reddish brown changing to bluish gray on older branches and the trunk.  The bark is smooth with irregular fluting that looks sinewy or muscular in appearance, giving rise to another common name "Musclewood."

Hard, heavy wood that has been used for mallets, handles, golf clubs, and fuel also lends a common name "Ironwood," (the true Ironwood is Ostrya virginiana).   Isn't it confusing, all these common names?  American Hornbeam can be found both as a single stemmed tree or a clump.  The broad rounded crown and irregular horizontal branching habit produce medium to dense shade, as well as an attractive focal point in the winter landscape.  In spring catkins are produced that later in the season turn into interesting pendulous clusters of seeds that are eaten by many species of birds.  There is considerable variation, but the fall color is splendid, ranging from yellow to orange to scarlet.

The only possible negatives for this tree are that it is somewhat difficult to transplant after the second year, and it doesn't like compacted soils, grading changes, or fill.  No serious disease or pest problems make it the "almost perfect" tree.

Call your friends and let them know about it.  Better yet try it yourself.    You will find it among the finest small to medium landscape trees.


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