2017 April 8

We have a number of these medium-sized trees growing alongside of our road, and I photographed them on July 8, 2016.


I don’t think I’ve ever seen one much more than about 25 feet tall, or with a trunk much more than maybe six inches in diameter.


The leaves are on alternating sides of the twigs,


with pronounced veins, and small teeth all around the leaf margin. The leaves are about half the size of the palm of my hand.


The first-year twigs have short little hairs on them, but these fall off of the twigs on the second year.


One of the distinctive identifying features is the flower/seed cluster. This is a loose “cone” of papery pouches, each with a single seed developing inside.


These are pretty clearly Hop-Hornbeam trees, Ostrya virginiana. They get their common name from the fact that their flowers look similar to the flowers of the not-really-related Hops plant, although the resemblance is only superficial[1].

They are also commonly referred to as ironwood[2], but there is another tree species that grows locally (American Hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana) that is also commonly called ironwood. The two species can be distinguished by the fact that american hornbeams have smooth bark, while hop-hornbeams have rough bark, like this:



The wood is very strong, dense, and resistant to compression, and so it is popular for making tool handles, walking sticks, and longbows. It isn’t much used for larger lumber, though, because the trees never get big enough to cut into substantial boards, and the wood is not very rot resistant (which is part of the reason why the trees never get very big – trees mostly die because their wood rots and they fall over).

[1] True hops are in a completely different order. Their cone-like flowers are extremely bitter and a bit toxic, and so are obviously popular for making beer. They contribute heavily to that deeply unpleasant flavor that people apparently like for reasons that I can’t really comprehend. The toxicity of hops also acts as a preservative, so that one can have a drink that fully preserves its nasty bitterness for a long time after it is made.

[2] “Ironwood” is not a very helpful common name for a tree. I did a search on the name on Wikipedia, and found that there are at least 29 different, mostly unrelated trees that are all called Ironwood, growing all over the world. The only thing they all have in common is that their wood has a reputation for being unusually hard (and sometimes unusually dense). So, this name is kind of analogous to calling all small arthropods with unusually long legs “Daddy Longlegs” – not particularly helpful in telling people what exact thing you are talking about.

One Response
  1. Gini permalink
    June 23, 2017

    Thank you so much for this posting. We’ve been trying to identify the tree on our back property for months! The paper like pods finally appeared, helping solidify identification. However, our tree is HUGE! Over 25 ft. If you’re interested I’ll send a pic. Our tree is about 35-40 ft. With a trunk base, that two grown men couldn’t reach around to touch fingers. Truly enormous! Thanks again for solving our mystery : )

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