American Hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana

American Hornbeam, Musclewood, or Ironwood, is a deciduous tree that may grow 30 to feet tall. It can be found naturally in areas with moist soil including woodlands, streambanks, riverbanks, and maritime forests. Does well in heavy shade and is found as an understory tree in forests.

The leaves are alternate with a doubly toothed margin. The bark is smooth, gray to bluish-gray, and heavily fluted. In early spring, yellow-green, male and fuzzy, yellow-green, female flowers mature. The small tree produces a small, ribbed nutlet that is carried by a 3-lobed leafy bract.

The American Hornbeam is a short, stubby tree that can have one or more trunks, each a foot wide and aesthetically pleasing. The bark is bluish-gray, thin, fairly smooth, and heavily fluted. The extremely hard wood of this tree will, as the common name suggests, take a horn-like polish and was once used by early Americans to make bowls, tool handles and ox yokes. Commercial use of hornbeam wood is not practicable, however, due to the limited amount of wood per tree. This plant is moderately resistant to damage from deer but is especially sensitive to drought, heat, and soil compaction.

A double in our driveway. The lovely hornbeams remind be a bit of the graceful way that dogwoods behave as an understory tree. Photo by K. Mulcahy

Young trees in the nursery. Photo by K. Mulcahy

A ribbed nutlet that is carried by a 3-lobed leafy bract. Photo by K. Mulcahy

Sources:,, other authoritative resources and personal experience.