Hornbeam, Ironwood, Blue Beech

by Green Deane

in Edible Raw, Grain/Nuts/Seeds, Greens/Pot Herb, Miscellaneous, Plants, Trees/Shrubs

Hornbeam likes to grow near water or damp conditions

Carpinus caroliniana: Musclewood

British author Ray Mears must have been thinking of the Hornbeam when he said a forager mustn’t pass up food no matter how meager.

Not all of the wild edibles can produce the best-tasting and most plentiful foods, but many can make their small contribution. And so it is with the American Hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, (kar-PYE-nus kair-oh-lin-ee-AY-nuh.)

Where I grew up it was called Ironwood or Hornbeam (which means hard tree.) Here in the South you’ll hear it called Blue Beech or Water Beech. While it is not a beech per se, its leaves — which turn orange read in the fall —  can remind one of a beech as can its bark. But the hornbeam has its own special look, and it is of a well-muscled, sinewy tree.

Hornbeam has a weightlifter's look

Hornbeam looks taut, cut and buff, as if it goes to the forest gym twice a day and lifts … iron. Hence its other common name: Musclewood. Once you have the look of a Hornbeam inside your head you will always recognize it easily.

Hornbeam never grows to a huge size, perhaps six or seven inches through on average. But, it is strong and dense, 45 pounds per cubic foot. It’s been used for tool handles and support poles and

as well as bowls and dishes because it does not crack or split or have any flavor.  It used to be favored to make charcoal powder.

Related to the Alders, Birches, Filberts, and Hophornbeams, the edible part are small nutlets,

Leaves resemble a beech tree

though the barks does have some medicinal uses and the leaves have been employed as an astringent. There are some 33,000 seeds to a pound, though every three to five years the tree will produce larger crops than usual. A heavily seeding tree is between 25 and 50 years old.  As fare goes, the nutlets are neither great nor awful, but they are small, which is why they are diminished by most writers. They can be eaten raw or roasted. Ray Mears also reports the sprouts are edible.

As for its scientific name, Caroliniana (like Virginiana) means North America, or at least central North America. Carpinus is the classical Latin name for the Hornbeam, and comes from “carpentum” a Roman horse-drawn vehicle with hard-wood wheels.

The Hornbeam grows throughout eastern North American, from Florida to Quebec, Louisiana north to Ontario  It is also found in Texas, Arkansas, central and southern Mexico, Guatemala,

Rub pappery wing off nutlet

and western Honduras. In timberland the Hornbeam is considered a tough weed because it is too small for commercial use. However, it makes a good firewood.

Seeds of the Hornbeam are an important food for squirrels. Seeds, buds, and or catkins are consumed by many birds: Ruffed grouse, ring-necked pheasants, bobwhite, turkey, ducks and warblers. The fox will eat the seeds as well. Leaves, twigs, and larger stems are eaten by cottontails, beaver, and white-tailed deer. Deer will eat the shoots but it is not a preferred food. The Hornbeam, however, is heavily used by beaver because it is common their habitat.  It is also the larval host of several butterflies including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Striped hairstreak, Red-spotted Purple, and Tiger Swallow-tail.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: A small tree, nearly shrubby, to 25 feet,rounded crown, twisted trunk. Leaves alternate, simple, elliptical to oval, 3 to 5 inches long, smaller on younger trees, pinnately veined, tip tapers to a sharp point, long and short teeth on leaves, smooth green above, paler below. Seeds, small, quarter to one third inch, ribbed nutlet on a 3-lobed, slightly folded leafy bract (resembles a maple seed), clustered on a long hanging stalk.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers March to May, nutlets late August to winter. Wind can disperse them up to 64 feet from the tree.

ENVIRONMENT: Moist areas of established forests, occasionally fields.  Makes a nice small yard tree, slow growing.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Nutlets raw or roasted, boiled or ground to add to other flours or food.  Take the papery bracts and rub them between you hands to free the nutlets.


If you would like to donate to Eat The Weeds please click here.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff April 13, 2016 at 20:43

My brother-in-law is a bow maker and tells me American Hornbeam will make a good bow.


john January 30, 2016 at 04:08

Where can I buy hornbeam seeds for eating, hornbeam leaves for making tea or do anything else herbal with hornbeam. The Bach Flower Remedy does somewhat decrease my fatigue, but I need something stronger. Likewise I have noticed that birch essential oil does slightly decrease my fatigue, so perhaps other products from the birch family might be helpful also?


Robert January 21, 2016 at 23:26


I have frankly loved this tree for a long time and I have finally found a place to take a couple from the wild and I want to be careful so that I can achieve success in the Transplanting. There was one on a property my Father owned and later sold. He had been a policeman most of his adult life and at some point someone made him a Billy Club from a chunk of Ironwood. I still have it. And, I want to put two in my yard. Do these trees have a deep taproot or shallow roots, and what extra care to take in digging up and transplanting? I consider myself as a proverbial green thumb and can get most things to survive but I read it is difficult to transplant so I want to take precautions.


Kathie Spitzley September 3, 2015 at 15:12

I am trying to find the name of a tree that was in my parent’s back yard. It appears to have parts of the trunk that wrap around the main trunk, like you could put your elbows inside one another and wrap your arms around each other. The lowest branches on the tree spread out well beyond what would be a normal drip edge and I think the top resembled a point, like a Christmas tree, but not as well defined. It was planted near to a Katsura tree and for a long time I thought that the tree I am describing was the Katsura. My friend, a landscape architect,told me to try this Carpinus caroliniana. Does the musclewoon wrap around itself? Please make another suggestion if it does not wrap a round. Thank You


Lindsay May 22, 2015 at 12:32

Love this website, especially the archives. My co-worker and I are teaching a few foraging/survival classes to staff and we are learning Volumes from your website.

I do have a comment regarding Hornbeam vs. Hop Hornbeam… I have learned my trees (in Illinois and North Carolina) and we refer to Hornbeam- Carpinus caroliniana as “Musclewood”, and Hop Hornbeam- Ostrya virginiana as “Ironwood”. Seems pretty uniform across the board with the other arborists in my field that I’ve come encountered. We also refer to Musclewood as Blue Beech. (Funny how one tree can have so many slang names!) Just thought that was interesting and notable, if there were regional differences in the nickname Ironwood for two different species.


Jim Dossett April 22, 2015 at 05:32

been wondering about this tree for more than 50 years, thanks Google! First encountered this tough tree in the Kentucky Woodlands portion of what is now The Land Between The Lakes . Have never seen anything but mature , but small shrub like trees . Wonder if a bow could be made from this wood? Or knife handles or duck calls ? Possibly a guitar neck?


Green Deane April 22, 2015 at 09:53

I don’t think it has the flexibility for a bow but I am not a bow maker. It was used for tool handles.


Anonymous November 12, 2014 at 00:00

Wow… I’ve been going to a campsite for 6 years without knowing what that tree was. My cousins and I always built forts in them and love the twisted trunk. Now that I know what it is, you’ve made my camping trips more interesting… Thx 😀


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: