Carpinus caroliniana (Blue Beech)
|Also known as:||Musclewood, American Hornbeam, Ironwood|
|Life cycle:||perennial woody|
|Habitat:||part shade, shade, sun; average to moist soil; hardwood forest, swamps, stream banks|
|Bloom season:||April - May|
|Plant height:||20 to 35 feet|
|Wetland Indicator Status:||GP: FAC MW: FAC NCNE: FAC|
|MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):|
|National distribution (click map to enlarge):|
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Male and female flowers are borne separately on the same tree (monoecious) in dangling clusters called catkins. Male catkins are stalkless, ¾ to 2 inches long arising singly from lateral buds on one-year-old branchlets, the flowers each with a yellow-green bract and red stamens.
Female catkins are 1/3 to 1¼ inch long at the tip of new branchlets, the flowers in pairs, each with a hairy, leaf-like bract and red styles. The bracts eventually grow to 1 inch or more long, becoming 3-lobed with smooth or irregularly toothed edges.
Leaves and stems:
Leaves are simple and alternate, the blade egg-shaped to elliptic, 2½ to 5 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide, tapered to a pointed tip, the base rounded to somewhat heart-shaped, edges coarsely and sharply double-toothed. Upper surface is dark green with prominent veins evenly spaced along the midrib, the surface smooth to sparsely hairy, the lower surface lighter green, hairy, especially along the veins, and gland-dotted. Fall color is yellow-orange to red.
Older bark is light gray and smooth, the wood underneath rippled, sinew-like. Trunks of large shrub-size trees are typically 4 to 5 inches diameter though a large specimen (rare in Minnesota) may reach a foot in diameter. It is often clonal from root suckers.
The name Blue Beech is a misnomer, as it is in the Birch family and unrelated to Beech (Fagus spp.) trees. While distributed throughout much of Minnesota's eastern deciduous forests, Blue Beech is by no means frequently encountered or, perhaps more so, not readily recognized. A understory species of moist lowland forests, it is a small-statured tree whose crown is easily lost in the lower canopy, and its tendency for multiple stems, even small colonies from root suckers, can give it a shrub-like appearance. Its leaves can be confused with both Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) (which also has a similar growth habit) and Elms (Ulmus spp.), but the under surface of its leaves are dotted with tiny dark brown glands and its smooth, gray muscle sinew-like texture trumps all other characteristics. Blue beech makes an excellent small shade garden species.
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Where to buy native seed and plants ↓
- Blue Beech tree
- young Blue Beech in fall color, in a residential landscape
- fruiting branch
- more leaves
- hairs and glands on new leaves in spring
Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin, Anoka and Kanabec counties, and his backyard garden in Ramsey County.
Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?