American hornbeam

Carpinus caroliniana
Family: Betulaceae

Natural History
Leaves and branch of American hornbeam
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

American hornbeam is a small, slow-growing, and short-lived tree that occupies the forest understory. Its common name is derived from the tough characteristic of its wood. "Horn" meaning tough and "beam" meaning tree in German. It is also known as ironwood or bluebeech and is in the birch family, Betulaceae.

Habitat & Range

Hornbeam grows in moist rich soils of bottomland hardwoods and edges of swamps and rivers. It is found throughout the midwestern and eastern United States from central Florida to southeastern Canada.

Wildlife Use


Human Use

The wood of hornbeam is hard and difficult to work. It has, however, had limited use for making tool handles where high strength is required. Pioneers used hornbeam to make bowls and dishes because it is durable against cracking and splitting.


Identifying Characteristics

Habitat: Hornbeam grows in moist, fertile soils of bottomland hardwoods on the edges of swamps, streams, and rivers. Other associated species include hophornbeam, red maple, sweetgum, alder, redbud, cypress, and sumac.
Size/Form: Hornbeam is a small to medium tree that reaches heights of 15' to 25'. It has a bushy crown and a fluted trunk that resembles the muscles in a flexed arm.
Bark: The blue-gray to grayish-brown bark is tight, thin, and smooth.
Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternately arranged, deciduous, and 2" to 4" long by 1" to 2" wide. The ovate shaped leaves usually have smooth blue-green upper surfaces, while the underneath surfaces are light yellowish-green and fuzzy near the main vein. The leaf base is wedged, sometimes unequal, and the tip tapers to a long point. The leaf margin is doubly serrated with pointed teeth.
Fruit: The fruit is a small wingless, ribbed nut that is subtended by a 3-lobed leaf-like bract that is 9/10" to 1 1/5" long. The fruits are clustered on 3" to 6" long hanging stalks.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • American hornbeam can be confused with another member of the birch family, Eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). The fruits are one of the key traits used to tell them apart. The fruits of hophornbeam are held in papery cones that resemble the hops used in brewing beer (hence the common name). American hornbeam has hard, spherical fruit hanging under leaf-like, 3-lobed bracts. The bark is another feature used to distinguish between these two birches. Eastern hophornbeam has loose strips of reddish brown to gray creating a rough, "clawed" bark. American hornbeam has a smooth bark with an undulating texture resembling a "muscular" appearance.



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