Carpinus caroliniana, Musclewood - 3 (3)

Meditations on Musclewood
by Catherine Siddall

My mother and father have always been interested in nature, and we often took family “woods walks” when I was a child. My mother in particular is a natural storyteller and passed to her children many of the stories she learned about the plants we encountered on these walks.  Bloodroot, which we used to paint our faces, and wild ginger, which we nibbled, made a particularly strong impression.  I also remember fondling the bulging “muscles” of a favourite small tree with smooth bark and an arching canopy.  It was Carpinus caroliniana—also commonly known as blue beech because of its smooth, grey-blue bark resembling a beech’s bark. (The simple leaves are also somewhat similar to a beech, but there the similarities end.)  Mother told us it was called musclewood because of its sinewy, elongated, fluted shapes resembling muscles, especially with its smooth bark. Because it has very hard wood, it is also called ironwood. However, confusion arises with this common name because another lovely, small native tree—Ostrya virginiana—is also known as ironwood. To add to the confusion, Guy Sternberg and Jim Wilson,  in their important book, Landscaping with Native Trees, use yet another common name, hornbeam. As I have learned since my childhood explorations in the woods, it is better to make the effort to learn at least some botanical Latin.
   Enough of names! Carpinus caroliniana is an understory tree found in the woods often near rivers or streams. It prefers shade (although it can be grown in sun) and is quite tolerant of a wide range of soil conditions. Its adaptability and wide range—from the northeastern shores of Georgian Bay to near Quebec City down the entire eastern United States to northern Florida and eastern Texas, even being found in the mountains in Mexico—is cause for awe from experienced arborists.  Sternberg and Wilson say this tree is “one of the most broadly adapted of all our native trees.” There has been some concern expressed in the literature about transplanting the tree due to its shallow root system. However, in my experience this can be overcome easily. My own musclewood was purchased as a tiny plant barely two feet tall in a two-gallon pot with a distinct and somewhat worrisome bend in its main trunk. It has thrived under my mature apple tree and now is approaching ten feet after three years. The bend in the trunk seems to have straightened, and the tree is developing nicely.
   Carpinus caroliniana is not often seen in the cultivated landscape but it has many merits which could make it a useful addition to a small, shady yard. I have valued its tendency to grow in an asymmetrical way with a leader that bends into graceful curves. Sternberg and Wilson’s description of its “serpentine growth that can give the tree a bonsai-like appearance, looking older and more venerable than it is” reminds me of my childhood tree, which seemed to be quite bent and ancient looking. The growth habits vary from specimen to specimen with some being multi-stemmed and others having one straight trunk. This tree will not grow large or quickly, usually not exceeding the height of a semi-dwarf fruit tree, according to Sternberg and Wilson.
   Graceful in all seasons, Carpinus caroliniana often produces a luminous display of colour in the fall. My tree’s leaves turn a warm orange-yellow colour nicely complementing the deep wine red leaves of the nearby flowering dogwood (not the native but the Korean one).  Who needs flowers with such a lovely leaf display? “Quite a nice native tree,” says Michael Dirr, who continues by noting that “This tree has a lot to offer our landscapes in subtle beauty.” Dirr, the author of Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, has also promoted the use of these trees in an article called “The hornbeams—Choice plants for American gardens.” Unfortunately, I am not aware of the tree being used much in North American gardens. The European hornbeam, however, has been used widely in landscaping in North America and Europe, and many selections with various attributes are available.
   Worth seeking out, Carpinus caroliniana will reward you with year-round, trouble-free beauty.  It is not prone to attacks from insects or disease. Its hard wood saves it from damage from ice and wind.  Not likely to outgrow a small shady space in your yard, it will never need pruning. It prefers deep, rich, moist and slightly acidic soil but will reportedly withstand the worst urban soils and conditions without evidence of stress. My tree has not produced any flowers (staminate catkins) followed by winged nuts, but these are not noteworthy and perhaps only come when the tree is more mature. It is unlikely that the tree, when it does flower, will create any nuisance seedlings. So, even if you don’t have a musclewood tree in your childhood memory bank, perhaps you can make childhood memories for some young person in the future. Remember—it’s slow growing. No time to lose.

Catherine Siddall lives and gardens in Toronto, where she is a long-time member of the Toronto and Parkdale Horticultural Societies. Catherine's garden design, build and maintenance business is thriving and she has successfully insinuated many native plants into clients' landscapes. She is also a partner in Siddall and Cope, which offers services to groups wanting to establish community gardens or naturalization projects. She can be reached at (416) 531-2253 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Cultivation Native Plants to Know Carpinus caroliniana, Musclewood - 3 (3)