American hornbeam

American hornbeam in fall color.

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. This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

Botanical name:

Carpinus caroliniana

All Common Names:

American hornbeam, musclewood, blue beech

Family (English):

Birch

Family (Botanic):

Betulaceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree

Foliage:

  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • Chicago area,
  • Illinois,
  • North America

Planting Site:

  • Residential and parks

Landscape Uses:

  • Massing,
  • Screen,
  • Shade tree,
  • Specimen

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 (Chicago),
  • 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

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

Growth Rate:

  • Slow

Transplants Well:

  • No

Wildlife:

  • Game birds,
  • Small mammals,
  • Songbirds

More Information:

Tree & Plant Care

Plant in the spring. Difficult to transplant due to deep spreading lateral roots.
Tolerates 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 inches long, double serrated margins with 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 October, 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.

Cultivars and their differences

These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.

Firespire™ American hornbeam  (Carpinus caroliniana 'J.N. Upright'):  A narrow, upright cultivar with improved red-orange fall color; 20 feet high by 10 feet wide.

J.N. Strain American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana 'J.N. Strain'):  A vigorous cultivar with improved orange-red fall color.

Native Flame® American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana 'JFS-KW6'):  An upright form with bright red fall color; 30 feet high by 20 feet wide.

Palisade® American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana 'CCSQU'):  An upright oval form with yellow-orange fall color; 20 to 30 feet high by 15 to 20 feet wide.

Location of Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam) at the Arboretum