Tree of the Month, June 2022 American Hornbeam aka Ironwood, Blue Beech, Water Beech, Muscle Wood (Carpinus caroliniana)

by Martin (Mort) Schmidt for Simply Living

The American Hornbeam is a distinct and charming understory tree of Ohio’s forests, found in areas with rich, moist soil and heavy shade. Few trees have more common names than the American hornbeam. Carpus caroliniana is one of two Ohio trees with the common name “hornbeam”, the other being the Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Hornbeam is Germanic for “tough wood” and both hornbeams are exceedingly hard. Also, both are known by the name “ironwood”, but the name is applied to over 100 species of unusually hard woods worldwide.

American Hornbeam bark is smooth, much like that of the American Beech, but a bit darker and somewhat bluish in color, hence the name “Blue Beech”. It’s also known as “Water Beech” due to its affinity for water, but it’s more closely related to birch than beech. While American Hornbeam bark is smooth, their trunks are typically deeply fluted, resembling muscular arms, hence the name “Muscle Wood”.

American Hornbeams have alternate leaves and branches, which is to say that the leaves and branches are not attached directly across from one another. The leaves are simple and do not share stems with other leaflets, so the leaves do not occur in regular groupings like the five leaflets in Ohio Buckeye or the infamous three leaflets associated with Poison Ivy. American Hornbeam leaves have no lobes, but they’re one of several Ohio trees with large teeth separated by smaller teeth, often described as “double sawtooth”. The leaves have a pinnate vein pattern, i.e., they have a central primary vein with secondary veins attached at various points, like the design of a feather. Palmately veined leaves are hand-like, as seen in Sugar Maple, and have multiple primary veins radiating from the stem.

Top left – opposite versus alternate. Middle – American Hornbeam showing double sawtooth edges and
pinnate veining. Right – Sugar Maple showing palmate veining. Bottom left – American Hornbeam bark.
Second photo – Hophornbeam bark. Third photo – American Hornbeam fruit. Bottom right – Hophornbeam fruit.

American Hornbeam and Eastern Hophornbeam leaves are similar, but the smooth bark of the American Hornbeam is nothing like the closely fissured bark of the Hophornbeam. A mature American Hornbeam is generally no more than 35 feet tall, whereas the Hophornbeam reaches 50
feet. American Hornbeam fruits consist of clusters of small round seeds attached to 3-inch long three-pointed wings, whereas Hophornbeam fruits consist of compact clusters resembling beer hops. American Hornbeam is monoecious. It has female and male flowers on the same tree, so every tree can potentially bear fruits. Dioecious trees have separate female and male trees and only females bear fruits. American Hornbeam is found throughout Ohio and is present in most of eastern North America.

American Hornbeam lumber is one of the hardest Ohio woods, with a Janka hardness of 1,750 lbf, compared to a median hardness of 980 lbf on my list of 68 Ohio trees. But it’s not nearly as hard as the introduced Hedge Apple with a hardness of 2,760 lbf, let alone the world’s hardest commercially-available lumber, Lignum Vitae, THE “Ironwood”, with a hardness of 4,500 lbf. Several of Ohio’s hickories are harder than American Hornbeam, but hickory has a coarse grain, while Hornbeam is smooth, making Hornbeams superior for woodworking-plane bodies, wedges for splitting logs, and cups and bowls. The natives and early settlers worked Hornbeam green (not yet dry), before it fully hardened. Such a hard wood seems an odd choice for bowls and cups which undergo little wear, but Hornbeam is smooth, has no taste, and tends not to crack as it dries. American Hornbeam has little rot resistance, and is not used for outdoor items.

Because it is exceptionally strong, hard, and shock resistant, the wood has also been made into golf clubs, mallet heads, tool handles, oxen yokes, windmill and watermill cogs, drumsticks, and levers. In fact, yet another common name for Hornbeam is “leverwood”. And the Latin genus name,
Carpinus is derived from the words for oxen yoke, which was another use for this tough wood.

Before the advent of metal screws, the screws of printing presses and cider presses were made of American Hornbeam. Like most dense woods, Hornbeam makes excellent firewood, and charcoal from American Hornbeam burns hot enough to smelt iron. Ohio’s other ironwood, Eastern
Hophornbeam, is more widely used, due to its larger size, but it is not as strong and shock resistant.

According to the Native American Ethnobotany Database,
<> the Cherokee made a tea from the inner bark of American Hornbeam to treat flux (diarrhea mixed with blood) and some urinary
disorders. Various sources indicate that a liquid from the inner bark was used to treat sore muscles.

Not surprisingly, American Hornbeam is widely associated with strength and stamina, but counter to stereotype, the book Whispers from the Woods, the Lore and Magic of Trees attributes Hornbeam’s virtues to feminine energy. Although I’m highly skeptical about the mystical energy
attributed to plants, crystals, and such, I completely agree that the greatest strength is often found in the diminutive and the feminine. May American Hornbeam remind us of this.

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