Carpinus caroliniana (Blue Beech)

Plant Info
Also known as: Musclewood, American Hornbeam, Ironwood
Family:Betulaceae (Birch)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Habitat:part shade, shade, sun; average to moist soil; hardwood forest, swamps, stream banks
Bloom season:April - May
Plant height:20 to 35 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: FAC NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: raceme

[photo of male flowers] Male and female flowers are borne separately on the same tree (monoecious) in dangling clusters called catkins. Male catkins are stalkless, ¾ to 2 inches long arising singly from lateral buds on one-year-old branchlets, the flowers each with a yellow-green bract and red stamens.

[photo of female flowers] Female catkins are 1/3 to 1¼ inch long at the tip of new branchlets, the flowers in pairs, each with a hairy, leaf-like bract and red styles. The bracts eventually grow to 1 inch or more long, becoming 3-lobed with smooth or irregularly toothed edges.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are simple and alternate, the blade egg-shaped to elliptic, 2½ to 5 inches long, 1 to 2 inches wide, tapered to a pointed tip, the base rounded to somewhat heart-shaped, edges coarsely and sharply double-toothed. Upper surface is dark green with prominent veins evenly spaced along the midrib, the surface smooth to sparsely hairy, the lower surface lighter green, hairy, especially along the veins, and gland-dotted. Fall color is yellow-orange to red.

[photo of twig] New branchlets are hairy, one year old twigs are slender, the reddish brown bark almost shiny with scattered white lenticils (pores).

[photo of trunk] Older bark is light gray and smooth, the wood underneath rippled, sinew-like. Trunks of large shrub-size trees are typically 4 to 5 inches diameter though a large specimen (rare in Minnesota) may reach a foot in diameter. It is often clonal from root suckers.

Fruit: Fruit type: nut

[photo of fruit] The fruiting catkin is up to 2¾ inches long, the fruit a small, greenish, hairy nutlet attached to the large, leafy, three lobed bract.


The name Blue Beech is a misnomer, as it is in the Birch family and unrelated to Beech (Fagus spp.) trees. While distributed throughout much of Minnesota's eastern deciduous forests, Blue Beech is by no means frequently encountered or, perhaps more so, not readily recognized. A understory species of moist lowland forests, it is a small-statured tree whose crown is easily lost in the lower canopy, and its tendency for multiple stems, even small colonies from root suckers, can give it a shrub-like appearance. Its leaves can be confused with both Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) (which also has a similar growth habit) and Elms (Ulmus spp.), but the under surface of its leaves are dotted with tiny dark brown glands and its smooth, gray muscle sinew-like texture trumps all other characteristics. Blue beech makes an excellent small shade garden species.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Aitkin, Anoka and Kanabec counties, and his backyard garden in Ramsey County.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Kristy P - Rutledge
on: 2017-10-14 19:59:24

Have a group of these trees on our family property in northeast Pine County.

Posted by: Gary - Carlton County
on: 2018-11-08 23:46:34

A handful of small shrubs on private land in Skelton township. I have not seen this species anywhere else in the county.

Posted by: Naomi - Moose Lake, Carlton County, MN
on: 2019-05-18 06:01:19

We have a grouping of blue beech trees on our property. The bark is so different from other trucks, and the catkins are also different from other trees. I was glad to finally find out what it is!

Posted by: Deane Johnson - Itasca State Park
on: 2020-07-16 21:13:16

We found one in a hardwood area during a plant survey.

Posted by: Linda Bryan - Pokegama Lake, Pine County
on: 2022-10-01 19:25:58

I believe that there are some of these hornbeams along Lind's Lane, adjacent to our cabin property. I mistook them for elms for years. We have an extremely old forest here, which is rumored to be endangered by development now. We know of a hornbeam which was probably fully developed when I was a child in 1950s. I read old Minnesota manuscripts. The ABCFM protestant mission on this lake in 1830s described the wealth of interesting hardwoods accompanying the conifers (and the marsh hay along Mission Creek). If someone wants a citation, let me know.

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