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Musclewood, aka American hornbeam, is a small, multi-trunked, slow-growing understory tree native to hardwood forests of the eastern US and Canada. A member of the hazelnut family, it is perhaps best known for its smooth and sinewy steel-gray bark and the muscle-like look of its trunk and larger branches.  This low-maintenance tree has an attractive, open habit in total shade, becoming denser in full sun.  It provides year-round interest in the form of catkins, copious foliage, scarlet-orange fall color, and unique branches and bark. 


Typically found in rich moist woods, valleys, ravine bottoms, and along streams, it may be sited in lawns, along ponds or streams, and in naturalized woodland areas.  Wonderful for filling in space beneath larger trees.  Generally intolerant of tough, urban conditions. Best growth is seen with wind protection and afternoon shade from other trees or buildings.


Plant Characteristics:

Grows 20’-35’ tall and wide.


Prefers part to full shade but will grow in full sun.


Prefers medium to rich soil with regular moisture; does well in sandy loam. Tolerates clay soil, and dryness once established.


Tolerates proximity to black walnut trees


Flowers appear in early spring in the form of male and female catkins.  Females become distinctive clusters of winged nutlets.  Flowers are wind pollinated.


Oval-shaped, serrated, dark green leaves are 3”-5” long and turn yellow, orange and red in fall.


Smooth, bluish-gray trunk and larger branches of mature tree have muscle-like fluting. Bark is thin and fairly smooth.


Wildlife Value: 

Musclewood is a host plant for 72 species of butterflies and moths, including the Io, Polyphemus, and luna moths, and the eastern tiger swallowtail and red-spotted purple butterflies. Miscellaneous insects feed on the foliage, wood, and sap, including a variety of caterpillars, wood-boring beetles, aphids, and several leafhoppers.  Seeds, buds, and catkins are eaten by a number of songbirds, ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, bobwhite, turkey, fox, and gray squirrels. Rabbits, beavers, and deer eat the leaves, twigs, and larger stems. Musclewood provides good cover for a variety of wildlife.  Some birds, including wood thrush, black-capped chickadee, and Carolina chickadee, use the tree for nesting.  Because the tree is common in typical beaver habitat, the wood is heavily used by beavers for construction.


Medicinal and Edible Uses:

Ojibwe, Cherokee, Iroquois, and Delaware tribes used musclewood to treat urinary issues.  

Musclewood, Carpinus caroliniana

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