Featured Native: American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)

Carpinus caroliniana; 2″ at the farm.

Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam or musclewood) is an attractive but seldom-utilized native tree that excels in small landscapes, especially in moister and shadier situations.   Native to almost all of the United States east of the Mississippi River save northern Maine and the immediate Gulf Coast, musclewood is a much smaller and more irregular tree than its more commonly cultivated European brother cousin C. betulus.  In the wild, C. caroliniana is most often found in rich, moist woodlands, shady valleys and ravine bottoms and clinging to rocky slopes along stream beds.

In the landscape, musclewood matures to an irregularly-rounded small tree; typically no more than

Carpinus caroliniana; fruit detail.

Young Carpinus caroliniana in a landscape setting.

Carpinus caroliniana; autumn color

25-30 feet in height with an equal or slightly larger spread.  The deep green alternate leaves are 2½ to 4 inches long and half that in width, resembling those of the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), but with distinctively double serrated margins.  The leaves turn a bright clear yellow in autumn, fading to dark orange then brown before falling.   Inconspicuous male and female flowers in spring lead to an attractive fruit consisting of a short pendulous cluster of small nutlets, each subtended by a three-lobed leafy bract.  In winter, the smooth, fluted blue-gray bark becomes the star attraction and the source of both the musclewood name and the older common name of blue beech.  Carpinus caroliniana thrives in the garden in average to moist soils and in partial to semi-dense shade, but excels in moist, acidic situations. It also has a good tolerance for clay soils and is one of the few native plants that can thrive under the canopy of black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees.  Due to its fibrous, spreading roots, transplanting is best accomplished in the spring and when the tree is relatively young.    It is relatively pest-free and tolerant of pruning once established.

Carpinus caroliniana; 2½” at the farm in winter.

Carpinus in general have very strong, dense, almost white heartwood that can be burnished to appear like horn, hence the common name ‘hornbeam’.  The wood was used by early European settlers for bowls, yokes, and tool handles.  The tiny nutlets serve as food source for squirrels and many native songbirds, grouse, and quail while the tree itself is a favored host of several native moths.

We supply Carpinus caroliniana in a range of sizes including 1½”, 2”, 2½” and 3” caliper.  It is an excellent, attractive, and low-maintenance tree that deserves a place in your landscape designs.