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American Hornbeam Carpinus caroliniana


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American Hornbeam, leaves and fall color
credit: Nadiatalent

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Alternate name: Musclewood, Ironwood, Blue Beech

Family: Betulaceae, Birch view all from this family

Description A small hardwood tree in the genus Carpinus also occasionally known as blue-beech, ironwood, or musclewood. It is native to eastern North America, from Minnesota and southern Ontario east to Maine, and south to eastern Texas and northern Florida. It also grows in Canada (southwest Quebec and southeast Ontario), Mexico (central and southern), Guatemala, and western Honduras.

It is a small tree reaching heights of 10–15 m, rarely 20 m, and often has a fluted and crooked trunk. The bark is smooth and greenish-grey, becoming shallowly fissured in old trees. The leaves are alternate, 3–12 cm long, with prominent veins giving a distinctive corrugated texture, and a serrated margin. The male and female catkins appear in spring at the same time as the leaves. The fruit is a small 7–8 mm long nut, partially surrounded by a three- to seven-pointed leafy involucre 2–3 cm long; it matures in autumn. The seeds often do not germinate till the spring of the second year after maturating.

There are two subspecies, which intergrade extensively where they meet:
Carpinus caroliniana subsp. caroliniana. Atlantic coastal plain north to Delaware, and lower Mississippi Valley west to eastern Texas. Leaves mostly smaller, 3–9 cm long, and relatively broader, 3–6 cm broad.
Carpinus caroliniana subsp. virginiana. Appalachian Mountains and west to Minnesota and south to Arkansas. Leaves mostly larger, 8–12 cm long, and relatively narrower, 3.5–6 cm broad.

It is a shade-loving tree, which prefers moderate soil fertility and moisture. Common along the borders of streams and swamps, loves a deep moist soil. It has a shallow, wide-spreading root system. The wood is heavy and hard, and is used for tool handles, longbows, walking sticks, walking canes and golf clubs. The leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of some Lepidoptera, for example the Io moth (Automeris io).

Habitat Canyons & valleys, Watersides (fresh).

Range New England, Texas, Florida, Great Lakes, Plains, Mid-Atlantic, Southeast.

Comments Blue beech works best as an understory tree in low, shady places, though it shows remarkable adaptability to drier, sunnier sites. It will tolerate periodic flooding. Leaves are occasionally attacked by black mold. It is a slow-grower. The European C. betulus is the more widely plant species but has less desirable fall foliage and its trunk is obscured by lower branching.

Exposure Preference Shade.

Native Distribution C. Maine to c. Florida, w. to e. Minnesota, e. Iowa , Arkansas & e. Texas; also Mexico

Site Preference Low, rich woods; stream banks

Soil Preference Moist, rich, deep soils. pH 6-7.5.

Wildlife Value Winged nuts are favored by ruffed grouse, finches, wild turkeys and several other species of birds. The plant provides cover for a variety of wildlife.