The eastern hophornbeam is a small and graceful deciduous tree with rough, scaly brown bark that peels away in elongate narrow strips, giving a shaggy appearance to the trunk. Eastern hophornbeam gets 20-40' tall and has a rather open crown that may be either rounded or shaped like a vase. The leaves resemble those of the elm, 3-5" long and 1-2" wide, with many teeth along the margins. They are yellowish-green above and paler beneath, turning brilliant yellow or yellow-brown in fall. Male and female flowers are borne in separate catkins (hanging, cylindrical clusters) on the same tree. The seeds are enclosed in papery bladderlike husks that are borne in pendant conelike clusters about 2" in length. The husks are pale green, almost white, ripening eventually to brown.
Eastern hophornbeam occurs in eastern North America from Nova Scotia to North Dakota, south to Florida and eastern Texas and in the highlands of Mexico and Guatemala. It grows in fairly dry, well-drained soils in the understory of mixed hardwood forests, in association with maples, elms, basswood, yellow birch, hickories, oaks and American beech. Eastern hophornbeam grows in drier sites than the similar and closely related American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), and the two species are rarely seen right next to each other in the wild.
Eastern hophornbeam is a long-lived, slow-growing tree, adding about a foot of new growth per year and taking up to 15 years before producing abundant seed crops. Light: Eastern hophornbeam is shade tolerant, but also thrives in partial sun. Specimens in full sun may become ragged in hot, southern summers. Moisture: Eastern hophornbeam is drought tolerant. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 9. Propagation: Seeds have an inherent dormancy requirement and are difficult to germinate. They must be warm-stratified for several months and then cold-stratified for several months, and still they may take a month or more to germinate.
The hophornbeam makes an excellent addition to the woodland garden. It tolerates shade well enough to thrive under larger oaks or pines. It is a handsome specimen along walks, in parks, or in a naturalized garden. The seeds are eaten by many kinds of birds.
The wood is close-grained, extremely heavy and very hard, and used for fence posts, tool handles and mallets. The Lakota people made bows from the wood of eastern hophornbeam. The tree is not large enough for the wood to be of commercial importance.
Eastern hophornbeam is a handsome little tree that is sadly underutilized in landscaping. The trunk, with its shaggy reddish brown bark, is especially attractive in winter, and in some years the autumn foliage ignites to a spectacular bright yellow. The unusual fruiting clusters are eye-catching and long-lasting. For gardeners anywhere in eastern North America, the eastern hophornbeam is a natural for the "native plant" or xeriscape landscape.
Some people confuse hophornbeam with hornbeam (Carpinus spp.), probably because the leaves and fruiting structures are similar, and certainly because the common names are so similar. In fact, one well-known field guide to North American trees actually describes the American hornbeam (C. caroliniana) in the first sentence under eastern hophornbeam! Talk about getting confused! "Hornbeam" comes from the German for "tough tree", and hop refers to the similarity of the fruiting bracts to hop-vine (Humulus spp.) fruits.
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