Two Native Trees, Many Nicknames

American Hornbeam and American Hophornbeam

These two native trees are known by so many nicknames that they can be tricky to know which is which as you're learning about them. Both even share the same nickname Ironwood because of their hard wood. Learn more about two important trees found in Vermont, and some favorite ways to include them in the landscape.

Carpinus carolinana fruits

Carpinus caroliniana fruits in mid-summer

Carpinus caroliniana

Also known as: American Hornbeam, Musclewood, Blue Beech, shares nickname Ironwood

Carpinus is commonly found in wet areas in Vermont's lower elevations. Its smooth bark on trunks and branches resembles muscular skin, hence the nickname musclewood. Male and female catkins appear at the same time in early spring while their fruits arrive in mid-summer. Small nuts are clustered within leafy bracts and are visible. They are technically edible for humans, though squirrels, rabbits, and beavers will likely enjoy them much more.

Ostrya virginiana hop-like fruits

Ostrya virginiana fruits in mid-summer

Ostrya virginiana

Also known as: American Hophornbeam, Hophornbeam, shares nickname Ironwood

Ostrya has much more airy branching and is usually seen growing on slopes, versus in lowlands like Carpinus.  Its gray-brown bark is very different with textured flaky plates. Male and female catkins appear in very early spring as new leaves emerge. Female catkins develop into fruits with the appearance of hops in mid-summer. Small nuts are enclosed in each papery pocket and are an important food source for ruffed grouse, deer, and rabbits.

Smooth bark of carpinus next to textured bark of ostrya

Left: Smooth bark of Carpinus, also called Musclewood

Right: Textured bark of Ostrya

In the Landscape

We look forward to both of these trees' unique fruits in the summer. While they are a valuable food source for wildlife, they are also beautiful and ornamental for us humans. Both trees can be planted as specimens or naturalized. Their shorter heights as understory trees add height and nesting diversity to woods habitat.


Ostrya doesn't mind shade and is perfect along a woods edge. It grows as a single-lead tree, reaching around 40' tall. Carpinus reaches between 20-30' tall and can be grown as a single-lead tree, or as multi-stem with lower branching. It is more dense and makes an excellent deciduous screen or hedge. There are also more cultivated varieties with columnar form.


Keep an eye out for these two trees while enjoying Vermont's woods and streams, and consider them when adding to your landscape!

Specimen Ostrya tree fruiting

Specimen Ostrya tree

Single lead Carpinus

Single-lead Carpinus

Multi-stem and columnar forms of Carpinus caroliniana

Multi-stem and columnar forms of Carpinus caroliniana at the nursery