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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, 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): 
Birch
Family (Botanic): 
Betulaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Foliage: 
  • Deciduous (foliage falls off)
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 3
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun (4-6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial shade (4-6 hrs indirect light daily)
  • Full shade (4 hrs or less of light daily)
Tolerances: 
  • Dry sites
  • Occasional flooding
  • Alkaline soil
  • Clay soil
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Alkaline soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
Size Range: 
  • Medium tree (25-40 feet)
  • Small tree (15-25 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Multi-stemmed
  • Rounded
  • Spreading
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
  • Massing
  • Parkway/street
  • Screen
Time of Year: 
  • Early winter
  • Mid winter
  • Late winter
  • Late summer
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
More Information: 

Size and Form

25 to 35 feet high and 25 to 30 feet wide; rounded form

Tree & Plant Care

Plant in the spring, shallow-rooted and difficult to transplant.
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.

Attracts birds and butterflies

Birds use this tree for shelter and eat the nutlets for food.

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 -5" long, double serrated margins with a  pointed tips.
Leaves emerge reddish-purple, changing to dark green, then a 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.