The City Naturalist

City Naturalist

American Hornbeam Tree

Article and Photos by Leslie Day

AMERICAN HORNBEAM Carpinus caroliniana
Common Names: Musclewood, Ironwood, Blue-beech, Water-beech. The word "hornbeam" comes from the words "horn" for "toughness" and "beam" an old English word for "tree" and refers to this tree's very hard, tough, wood.

DESCRIPTION: The Hornbeam is a small tree whose smooth, fluted, dark gray trunk has a distinctly muscular appearance--a deeply ridged and sinewy look. The Hornbeam reaches a height of 30 feet with a trunk measuring l foot in diameter.

LOCALLY: There are many Hornbeam trees here in Riverside Park. The male catkins are truly beautiful when they emerge in late March before the leaves, and hang suspended. Long, delicate, and brilliant green, they are among the first greenery we see and truly a sight for sore, winter-logged eyes. The bark stands out because it looks sinewy and strong and in fact covers a wood that is one of the strongest one can find in a tree. "The smooth bark seems to be corrugated with some sort of swelling or twisting inside the wood itself, as if the life within showed itself proudly, as a young man will flex his arm in the joy of its strength." (Peattie, 1948, p. 156)

FLOWERS and FRUIT: The male flowers (staminate catkins) emerge in late March and hang down like long, slender, green chandeliers. The female flowers (pistillate catkins) emerge from the tips of the branches and, once pollinated, grow into small ovoid nutlets; each one being enclosed in the base of a 3-lobed, leaf-like bract which are borne in pairs in rather loose and drooping clusters. These nuts are eaten by many birds and by squirrels. In the suburbs and rural areas, the fruit is eaten by ruffed grouse, bobwhite, pheasant and wild turkey. Cottontail rabbit and white-tailed deer nip the shoots of this tree.

LEAVES: Similar to beech leaves, the Hornbeam leaves are thin and beautifully translucent. However there are many leaves giving a dense appearance and providing much cool shade in summer. In late autumn the leaves turn deep scarlet and orange. The leaves are finely and sharply double-toothed. They are thin but firm in texture, dark green above and paler beneath, smooth with long-pointed tips and rounded bases.

WOOD: The wood of the Hornbeam tree is heavy, hard, tough, strong, and durable. Early settlers used it to make bowls and dishes, as this wood is not subject to cracks or leaks. The wood is so strong it is used on Rolls Royces outside the side doors. The wood has also been used for levers, home-made tool handles, and fuel.

HABITAT: Moist rich soils, mainly along streams and in ravines; in understory of hardwood forests.

RANGE: Ontario south to central Florida, west to East Texas and north to Minnesota. Also in the mountains of Mexico and Central America.

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, 1980, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
The Illustrated Book of Trees, Grimm, William C., 1983, Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa.
A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, Peattie, Donald Culross, 1991, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.
Golden Guide to Trees of North America, C. Frank Brockman, 1986,Golden Press, New York

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