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What is an American Hornbeam?

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  • Written By: Casey Kennedy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2016
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American hornbeam, or Carpinus caroliniana, is a small tree or large shrub that is a member of the Betulaceae family. Other common names for this tree are blue-beach, musclewood, or ironwood. The tree gets its name from horn, which means hardness, and beam, which is an old word for tree.

The American hornbeam typically grows to a height of 35 to 50 feet (1,066.8 to 1,524 cm). It may grow as a single or multi-stemmed tree. Considered an understory tree, it will typically grow beneath larger trees in wooded areas or in damp spots near streams and rivers.

Trees produce somewhat plain-looking foliage. The light green-colored leaves of the American hornbeam are slightly serrated and oval with a pointed tip. Leaves grow to around 4 inches (10.16 cm) in length and are about 2 inches (5.08 cm) wide. During the fall, they turn to a shade of orange.

Propagation of the American hornbeam typically occurs by seed. Trees begin producing seeds when they are around 15 years old and will continue production until they reach an age of about 75. To ensure their survival, these trees will generally produce a larger quantity of seeds every three to five years. Birds generally eat the fruit from these trees and drop the seeds elsewhere. The survival rate of a growing seedling typically depends on flooding or lack of rain in the area as well as how close in proximity it grows to more established trees of the same species.

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Commonly found in most parts of the eastern United States, the American hornbeam grows well in bottomland areas and shaded woods, but also has a use in landscaping. When planting in a yard, individuals should choose an area that has partial shade and a moist, acidic soil. They should plan to provide supplement water during dry periods, however, since these trees are not particularly drought-tolerant.

Wood from the American hornbeam was once the favored choice for early pioneers, who made bowls and plates out of it. Although the hardness of this wood sometimes makes it problematic to work with, some companies still choose it for making certain items because it does not typically split or crack. The handles of golf clubs and heads of mallets are two examples of products made from this wood. It even has a use in the automotive industry as door panels for luxury cars, such as the Rolls-Royce.

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