When looking for a low-maintenance, small tree for shady sections of your landscape, consider the hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). American hornbeam, also called musclewood, blue beech, ironwood or water beech, is native to North America and thrives in shade. Among its pleasing aspects is a handsome trunk and attractive foliage with ornamental value come autumn.
Hornbeam grows in the wild from southern Maine to northern Florida and westward to states like Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota. In its natural settings, hornbeam is an understory tree in hardwood forests, growing along ravines and near running waterways in fertile soil. It is a cold hardy member of the birch family, growing in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9.
Size and Form
Growing to between 20 and 35 feet tall, a mature American hornbeam has a trunk about 12 inches in diameter. In many instances, a hornbeam develops more than one trunk, in which case they tend to be wider and shorter. The hornbeam has slender, spreading branches, and takes on a rounded appearance in the upper canopy, although sometimes the top develops a flattened appearance.
Leaves of the American hornbeam grow to 4 1/2 inches long, are elliptical with pointed tips and have serrations along their edges. The three's foliage is dark green, but in autumn it becomes orange, yellow and red. While the April flowers are inconspicuous, they yield clusters of paired, hairy green nutlets that turn brown in September and October. The trunk is gray and smooth, and it has a fluted appearance, as do some larger branches, giving them the appearance of rippling muscles beneath skin, giving rise to the nickname "musclewood".
Growing Tips and Uses
A soil rich in organic matter is ideal for the American hornbeam. Although it tolerates shade well, the hornbeam develops a dens growth of branches when grown in sun. The tree tolerates pruning and is susceptible to few insect pests or serious diseases. Naturalize the hornbeam into your woodland borders or grow one on your lawn, or form a privacy screen with a row of hornbeams. The tree easily transplants from containers into the garden.
- University of Florida Extension: Carpinus Caroliniana
- University of Connecticut Plant Database: Carpinus Caroliniana
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Carpinus Caroliniana
- "National Audubon Society Field Guide to Trees: Eastern Region": Elbert L. Little; 2008
- Photo Credit mtreasure/iStock/Getty Images
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