Hornbeam (Carpinus Caroliniana) Plant Profile

Leaves of the American Hornbeam
dendroica/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

If you need a tree for a shady area, the American hornbeam may work well. It is a small- or medium-sized tree that prefers moist, acidic soils. The leaves will also change colors in the fall.

Latin Name

The scientific name for this tree species is Carpinus caroliniana. It is part of the Betulaceae (birch) family.

Common Names

The name American hornbeam is usually used, though you may also see blue beech, muscle beech, water beech, muscletree, musclewood, or ironwood. These are not true beech trees, however, as those belong to the Fagus genus and Fagaceae family.

The name musclewood is used because the branches and trunk have the appearance of muscles that are flexing. Ironwood is used because the wood is very strong. It does not crack or split but has few uses in lumber or woodwork because it is difficult to use.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones

Gardeners in USDA Hardiness Zones three to nine may consider this tree. It is native to North and Central America.

Size & Shape

At maturity, this species will be 20 to 35 feet tall and wide.


This tree can tolerate a wide variety of light conditions and can grow in full sun to full shade.

Foliage, Flowers, and Fruit

The leaves are blue-green and oblong, ovate, or elliptical. They are two to five feet long. In the fall you will be rewarded with a display of leaves that may be yellow, orange, purple, or red.

This species is monoecious and produces both male and female catkins on the same tree.

The fruit produced is a nutlet that is surrounded by a bract. Several nuts/bracts are stacked on top of each other and dangle down.

Design Tips

This is an excellent choice for shady areas that may be problematic for other trees. Choose another tree if you are expecting fast growth. It can take decades to reach its maximum height.

Growing Tips

The American hornbeam prefers to be in soil that is acidic, though it can tolerate soil that is slightly alkaline. You can take measures to make your soil acidic if needed.

This tree grows well in soil that is moist or even wet. It can tolerate some flooding and drought.

This can be difficult to transplant successfully. For best results, start a seed on the site where you want the tree or choose a young tree if buying from a nursery.

Maintenance and Pruning

You can prune this species to create a formal hedge or living fence.

It can form multiple trunks so you will need to train a central leader if you would like to have a single trunk.

Pests and Diseases

There are not too many problems associated with this species.

Possible Diseases:

Potential Pests:

  • Maple phenacoccus (Phenacoccus acericola)
  • Two-lined chestnut borer (Agrilus bilineatus)