Eastern Hop and American Hornbeam

There are two members of the birch family that often go unnoticed in the understory of our forests: the eastern hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana.) Both of these hornbeams are slow growing, diminutive trees that have very hard and heavy wood. Both trees prefer shady conditions and grow best in deep, fertile, moist, well drained soils. The American hornbeam and Eastern hop hornbeam both have male and female flowers on the same tree with the distinctive “catkin” which develops during the summer.

The eastern hop hornbeam gets its scientific name Ostrya from a Greek word meaning “bone” since the wood of this tree is very hard and heavy. The hop part of the name is derived from the bladder-like seed pond that resembles cultivated “hops.”Another common name of this plant is “ironwood” which is a very accurate description of this hard, dense, rot resistant wood. There are three species of ironwood found throughout North America, and there are eight additional species found throughout Europe and Eastern Asia. The eastern hop hornbeam is a small understory tree that rarely grows larger than 40 feet tall. The bark on young trees is a smooth, brown-red, but it changes to a uniform brown color that has a very shaggy appearance.

Eastern Hop Hornbeam

Credit: wikimedia.org - USDA

Eastern Hop Hornbeam

Ironwoods generally have a single trunk and a very irregular crown. They prefer the shade, but can also grow in open areas. The ironwood has been used as an ornamental, but its slow growth, intolerance to salt, and poor ability to transplant has limited its desirability for landscape plantings. The leaves, catkins, and nuts this tree produce are readily eaten by a number of months, butterflies, squirrels, and birds, especially grouse. Although the trees do not grow large in diameter, the wood of the hop hornbeam has been used for tool handles, fence posts, and canes. Ironwood makes excellent firewood— it cures well and burns hot.

American Hornbeam

Credit: frederick.forestryboard.org - David Barrow

The American hornbeam is a low growing tree of the understory that can have a single or multiple stems oftentimes having a twisted appearance. The American hornbeam has smooth grayish blue bark with deep furloughs in it. The appearance of the bark gives rise to two of the more common names, blue beech or muscle wood since the bark looks like a muscular arm. The muscle wood prefers a deep, rich, moist soil and it is usually found alongside small streams in heavily wooded areas. The muscle wood prefers a bit moister and shadier conditions than the ironwood, so you often see ironwood on the hillside leading down to the stream, while the muscle wood are found along the more level sections near the water. Muscle wood has winged nutlets that form in late summer; this tree provides much in the way of food for many forest dwelling animals. Muscle wood has a very hard, dense white wood that has been used for tool handles, canes, and bowls. The heavy, dense muscle wood makes good first season firewood, but it will get soft and punky if left on the firewood stack too long. Muscle wood is used as an ornamental, but it is prone to sunscald, so it is best planted in shady, moist conditions. This small tree has few insect or disease pests, and it has a very vibrant orange to bright yellow fall foliage. There are three species of muscle wood that grow in North and Central America.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature note for 8/29/20