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TREES & plants

American hornbeam

The American hornbeam is a native forest understory tree in the Chicago area, making it useful for shady landscapes and naturalized or woodland gardens. New leaves emerge reddish-purple, changing to dark green, then turn yellow to orange-red in the fall, offering a kaleidoscope of color throughout the year. Even in winter, the tree's fluted blue-gray bark with long, sinewy ridges make it a special addition to the landscape.

Botanical name: 
Carpinus caroliniana
All Common Names: 
American hornbeam, musclewood, blue beech
Family (English): 
Family (Botanic): 
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
  • Massing
  • Screen
Size Range: 
  • Medium tree (25-40 feet)
  • Small tree (15-25 feet)
Mature Height: 
20-30 feet
Mature Width: 
20-30 feet
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
  • Full shade (4 hrs or less of light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 3
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
  • Wet soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Tolerant
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Intolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Intolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Tolerant
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Fall color
  • Persistent fruit/seeds
  • Attractive bark
Season of Interest: 
  • Early winter
  • Mid winter
  • Late winter
  • Late summer
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Shape or Form: 
  • Multi-stemmed
  • Round
  • Spreading
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
Transplants Well: 
  • No
  • Game birds
  • Small mammals
  • Songbirds
More Information: 

Tree & Plant Care

Plant in the spring.   Difficult to transplant due to deep spreading lateral roots.
Tolerate dry, shady sites.

Disease, pests, and problems

Minor leaf spots

Disease, pest, and problem resistance

Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 8
Native to the eastern half of the United States.
Commonly found in wooded areas as an understory tree.

Bark color and texture 

Blue-gray,  fluted with long, sinewy ridges.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, texture, and color

Simple, alternate leaves; 2 1/2  to 5" long, double serrated margins with a  pointed tips.
Leaves emerge reddish-purple, changing to dark green, then yellow to orange-red in the fall.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Inconspicuous; tiny male flowers in pendulous catkins in April; small female flowers near the ends of the twigs.

American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)photo: John Hagstrom
Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Light brown nutlets, maturing in Oct., with a  three-lobed bract appearing as an umbrella over the nuts; nutlets and bracts in dangling clusters.
Bracts change from light green to yellow in fall.