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The Plant Medic

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Scientific names cut hornbeam tree confusion

Q. I recently was looking for a good native tree to plant in my home landscape. One tree that was recommended was a hornbeam. Looking on the Internet, I see that there is also a tree called Hop-hornbeam. Is this the tree I want?

A. Scientific names are used to correctly identify plants because the common names that people have assigned to plants can create confusion. The difference between Hop-hornbeam and hornbeam perfectly illustrates this concept because both names have been used to describe either of the trees, along with other names. Confused? Let’s clear this matter up.

American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniania) is a native understory tree often found near streams and moist bottomlands in the eastern United states and Canada. The most distinctive characteristic of American Hornbeam is its smooth, sinewy bark when the tree is young. The bark often looks like the muscles of a human arm; hence another common name, Muscle wood. Since its bark is smooth like an American Beech, it was also called Blue Beech by pioneers. Since it is a native tree, the American hornbeam is a valued food tree for many woodland animals. American hornbeam has been appearing more in nurseries across the nation because of the increased interest in natives by consumers. In general, it is a good tree for moist shade to part sun sites and has few, if any, disease and insect problems.

Hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a different tree. Most folks in this area know this tree by another name: Ironwood. Ironwood is also a native tree that was used by pioneers for fence posts because the wood is extremely decay-resistant. Unlike American hornbeam, Ironwood has rough reddish-brown bark. The fruit of Ironwood hang in drooping clusters of papery, bladder-like sacs. American hornbeam fruit are stacks of nuts attached to three-lobed bracts.

Both trees are found along streams and bottomland areas. Ironwood is less available in the commercial landscape market; though it can often have a nice orange fall leaf color.

Adding to the confusion is European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). This tree is more available in nurseries. European hornbeam makes a good landscape tree for moderately dry to moist sites. Its dense foliage and ability to withstand heavy pruning made it a popular tree in Europe where it was and still is used for tall hedges, topiary and even bonsai. The wood is dense and burns slowly, making it a good firewood. The most common form of European hornbeam found in the trades is “Fastigata” – a midsized tree with a columnar habit. It has few insect or disease issues and makes a good landscape tree for our area. It is not a native tree, so it might not work for your situation.

It is always better to shop for trees using the scientific name as your guide.

That way, you are more likely to get your hornbeam rather than another tree called by a similar common name.

The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Sunday. Kemery is the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service. Send questions to