Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Hornbeam
Nature Bulletin No. 356-A   November 1, 1969
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

A natural hardwood forest or woodland almost always contains a mixture of several species of trees, old and young, with an understory of shrubs, vines and smaller kinds of trees. They are usually of some benefit to various forms of wildlife. In this category, and fairly common in the Chicago region, are two members of the Birch family.

One is the Hop Hornbeam or Ironwood. It does well in dense shade among oaks on dry clay or gravelly soils but grows very slowly and rarely attains a diameter of 15 inches or a height of more than 30 feet. In our forest preserves there are many locations where ironwoods grow in scattered groups but they usually die, for some reason, when they reach a diameter of 8 or 10 inches and we know of only two large ones. A hop hornbeam can be identified by its bark, divided into thin narrow strips which tend to curl at the loose ends. The very slender zigzag twigs are also distinctive. The long-pointed leaves are sometimes mistaken for those of an elm but the double-toothed edges are much finer.

Like most birches, the male flowers form as short catkins in autumn and hang on the tree during winter. In spring they grow to be about two inches long. The fruit or nutlet is enclosed in a papery bladder-like sac, several of which form in a cone-like cluster on a long stem, like hops, and hence the name. Our species ranges from Nova Scotia to Manitoba and south to Florida and East Texas.

The seeds furnish important winter food for quail, ruffed grouse and ptarmigan. They also are eaten to some extent by songbirds such as finches and grosbeaks, as well as by squirrels and white-footed mice. Deer browse on the twigs and foliage. In the early days it was used for sled runners, levers for prying, wedges or "gluts" for splitting logs, mallets, tool handles, and sometimes for bows.

The Blue Beech or Water Beech is not a beech at all. It is also called "ironwood" by some but is more properly named the Hornbeam or American Hornbeam. There are about 15 related species, all in the northern hemisphere, distributed over much of Europe and southeastern Asia, but only one in North America. Although it has about the same range as the hop hornbeam, and they grow side by side, it is usually found on moist soils and along stream banks.

The blue beech also has slender twigs, not quite so zigzag as those of its cousin, and the leaves are similar, but the trunk is unmistakable. We always tell teachers and children to look for the "muscular" tree. The bark is smooth and bluish gray, much like that of the true beech, but noticeably fluted -- often resembling the straining muscles of a wrestler. The flowers are similar to those of the hop hornbeam but, unlike other native members of the Birch Family, the male catkins do not appear until spring and are not found on the tree, partially developed, in winter. The nutlets are hidden in 3-lobed leafy envelopes which are crowded on slender stems from 5 to 6 inches long. The tree furnishes food for about the same kinds of wildlife as does the hop hornbeam. Its wood, very hard and heavy was and is used for the same purposes in backwoods regions.

In pioneer days it was used for bung starters.

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