Content Detail

The American hornbeam is a native forest understory tree in the Chicago area, making it useful for shady landscapes and naturalized or woodland gardens. New leaves emerge reddish-purple, changing to dark green, then turn yellow to orange-red in the fall, offering a kaleidoscope of color throughout the year. Even in winter, the tree’s fluted blue-gray bark with long, sinewy ridges make it a special addition to the landscape. 

This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

  • Family (English) Birch
  • Family (botanic) Betulaceae
  • Planting site Residential and parks
  • Tree or plant type Tree
  • Foliage Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Small tree (15-25 feet), Medium tree (25-40 feet)
  • Mature height 20-30 feet
  • Mature width 20-30 feet
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily), Partial sun / shade (4-6 hrs light daily), Full shade (4 hrs or less of light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 3, Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Acid soil, Moist, well-drained soil, Wet soil
  • Tolerances Alkaline soil, clay soil, Dry sites, Wet sites
  • Season of interest early winter, midwinter, late winter, late summer, early fall, mid fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Inconspicuous
  • Shape or form Multi-stemmed, Round
  • Growth rate Slow
  • Transplants well No
  • Wildlife Game birds, Small mammals, Songbirds
  • Has cultivars Yes

Native geographic location and habitat:

C-Value: 8.  American hornbeam is native to the eastern half of the United States.  It is commonly found in wooded areas as an understory tree.

Bark color and texture:

The blue-gray bark is fluted with long, sinewy ridges.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, texture, and color:

Simple, alternate leaves are 2 1/2  to 5 inches long, with double serrated margins and pointed tips. Leaves emerge reddish-purple, changing to dark green, then yellow to orange-red in the fall.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size:

Flowers are inconspicuous. Small female flowers bloom near the ends of the twigs and tiny male flowers in pendulous catkins appear in April.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions:

Light brown nutlets mature in October and have a three-lobed bract appearing as an umbrella over the nuts. Nutlets and bracts are borne in dangling clusters. Bracts change from light green to yellow in fall.

Plant care:

American Hornbeam should be planted in the spring. It is difficult to transplant due to deep spreading lateral roots.  Hornbeam prefers moist soil, but tolerates dry, shady sites.  

List of pests, diseases and tolerances:

Minor leaf spots can be an aesthetic problem. It also tolerates black walnut toxicity.

These plants are cultivars of a species that is native to the Chicago Region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research. Cultivars are plants produced in cultivation by selective breeding or via vegetative propagation from wild plants identified to have desirable traits.

Firespire™ American hornbeam  (Carpinus caroliniana ‘J.N. Upright’):

A narrow, upright cultivar with improved red-orange fall color, this tree matures to 20 feet high by 10 feet wide.

J.N. Strain American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ‘J.N. Strain’):

A vigorous cultivar with improved orange-red fall color.

Native Flame® American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ‘JFS-KW6’):

An upright form with bright red fall color; 30 feet high by 20 feet wide.

Palisade® American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana ‘CCSQU’):

An upright oval form with yellow-orange fall color; 20 to 30 feet high by 15 to 20 feet wide.


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