Posts Tagged Carpinus caroliniana

Autumnal Observations

Autumn color of Katsura Tree.

Autumn is making itself undeniably known in my part of central North Carolina. Every day, I see more leaf color along with more discarded leaves on the ground, scattered among acorns, walnuts, and many other fruits. Humidity has dropped (barring occasional tropical storm remnants), skies are deep blue, and in my yard, the air is perfumed by the unmistakeable fragrance of golden leaves of a non-native tree I planted 25 years ago. The Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) became a must-have for me when I saw it in the display garden of a local plantsman. He waxed rhapsodically over the autumn leaf scent, comparing it to ripe strawberries in sunlight and cotton candy. He was not exaggerating. Wonder Spouse thinks the fragrance that wafts from the autumn leaves of this tree on north breezes resembles cotton candy. My nose finds the scent to be more fruity — a cross between strawberries and ripe apricots, perhaps with a hint of sweet apple. The golden orange leaves and their distinctive perfume have become our signal that autumn has arrived. But it is most certainly not the only sign.

Cornus kousa on the left and Cornus florida on the right, both heavy with autumn fruits.

Bird activity has picked up again. They were always around, of course, but now they are making more noise again. Red-bellied woodpeckers and blue jays make a constant ruckus as they gather characteristically small acorns of the massive southern red oak (Quercus falcata) that dominates the top of our hill. It appears to be a big year for acorn production; dropped acorns cover the ground beneath this giant.

Bright fruits of American beautyberry adorn its branches.

Fruit eaters from squirrels to Eastern bluebirds, mockingbirds, catbirds, and many other species are chowing down on dogwood and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) fruits. Our non-native Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) produced so much fruit this year that branches touched the ground until the fruits fell or were devoured.

Flocks of migrating robins clean off whole trees and bushes in a day or two. Migrating warblers are still passing through on their way to their winter hangouts, and finally this week, we’ve begun spotting rose-breasted grosbeaks at the feeders, refueling for their southward journeys.

The photo is blurry, but trust me, that’s a river otter peeking at me.

The plaintive calls of green-winged teals once again echo across the floodplain from the beaver-built pond where they spend their winters. Great blue herons are more visible as they stalk creek waters among browning vegetation. Besides the grosbeaks, the highlight of this week occurred this past Tuesday morning, when my garden helper, Beth, spotted two, perhaps three, river otters frolicking in the deeper part of the creek. She hollered for me to get my camera, but I only managed one blurry shot of one peeking at us from behind the safety of an ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana). Wonder Spouse has now aimed one of our wildlife cameras on that part of the creek in the hopes that it will photograph them more effectively than I could.

The green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) forest that dominates our floodplain and which has become infested with deadly invasive non-native Emerald Ash Borers glows in the dim light of dawn and dusk as leaves turn a soft yellow before falling. Ash fruits still dangle in large clusters on the branches of female trees. Knock-on-wood — evidence of the imminent demise of these ¬†ashes is not yet apparent. I am praying that the one experimental release of predatory wasps by experts from my state was successful beyond our wildest expectations.

With the departure of summer’s heat and humidity, I find myself tackling the infinite garden chore list as often as my joints permit. I’m collecting some of the abundant seed produced by native plants growing on our five acres so that I can share it with a friend who is attempting to re-establish native plants on a public greenway beside a local creek. The fall vegetable garden needs regular tending. I am happy to report that the broccoli crop is coming along nicely, along with myriad greens we will enjoy in winter salads. With Wonder Spouse’s help, the front water feature is drained, and plants in pots that live there all growing season have been cleaned up and relocated to their winter quarters inside the greenhouse.

Much remains to be done; the cooler air that continues to be delivered by frequent cold fronts reminds me constantly that many of the tasks remaining are time-sensitive. Fortunately for me, cooler air and the perfume from the Katsura tree’s leaves invigorate me body and soul as I race to complete as many tasks as possible before winter grips the landscape.

Follow me on iNaturalist

After being recently exiled from Facebook for the sin of using Piedmont Gardener as my name there (for many years), I have turned to an application I’ve been meaning to get to for some time — iNaturalist. If you aren’t using it and you love the natural world as I do, please check out this free application. You’ll find me there as piedmontgardener.

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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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