Subtle Beauty: Carpinus caroliniana

Carpinus caroliniana flowers

They make quite a statement, don’t they — all those catkin-type flowers dangling from the branches? They certainly caught my eye as I walked along the creek bank. These are the flowers of a lovely native understory tree common in moist piedmont forests: Carpinus caroliniana. It has always been one of my favorite understory trees.

Part of my attraction to the tree is its smooth bark. The trunk twists subtly, resembling muscles, which is how it got one of its many common names: Musclewood. It’s also called Ironwood, because the dense wood is hard to cut — although my local beaver population seems to have no difficulty felling this species that tends to grow adjacent to creeks and rivers.

Here’s the trunk of another Musclewood growing beside my creek:

Carpinus caroliniana trunk

And here’s a close-up, so you can see the twistiness of the bark that resembles muscles:

Carpinus caroliniana trunk closeup

The tree flowering in the first photo is dangling out over the creek, its roots clinging tightly to the edge of the bank. I often spot these trees bent in odd positions beside creeks. I think their shapes result from adapting to occasional floods and to seeking light through the mature canopy above them.

Other names for this birch family member include American Hornbeam and Blue Beech. The latter name comes from the fact that Carpinus caroliniana bark is smooth like that of beech trees, but its color is bluish gray, rather than the white of true beeches.

The fruits of this tree are called nutlets, and they are popular with squirrels and birds.

According to Michael Dirr’s Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (5th edition), the tree should be considered more often in man-made landscapes, especially in moister areas, where many tree species don’t grow well. He even lists two named cultivars.

If you’re looking for an understory-size tree (30-35 feet) that tolerates shade and moisture, provides four seasons of visual interest, and feeds wildlife, give Musclewood serious consideration. I’m betting you’ll come to appreciate its subtle beauty in the landscape as much as I do.

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