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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Update: June 2012