Native Plant of the Week: Blue Beech ~ Carpinus caroliniana

Blue Beech ~ Carpinus caroliniana subsp. virginiana

Other Common Names: Musclewood

This medium sized understory tree is a great native for a shaded, mesic to dry place in the landscape. I have seen this tree growing in upland slopes in deep shade (under mature hemlocks) in Ontario, and in field edges and understories in north central Wisconsin along with White Oak.

The smooth gray bark is one of the most distinguishing features of this tree, with a sinewy surface resembling a muscled arm. It is almost always a multistemmed tree, and if you purchase a single stemmed species it will most likely sucker new stems around the base.

The leaves of Blue Beech look very similar to Ironwood with coarsely serrated edges. This tree has separate male and female flowers (catkins) that emerge in early May. The resulting fruit (nutlet) begins to form in late May, and is surrounded by bracts. These bract clusters hang downwards and are another attractive feature of this tree.

Blue beech can reach heights of 30 feet, but most often you will see it under 20 feet in the wild in our area. "(M)ost blue beech in a mature forest originate as root suckers, not as seedlings. These suckers sprout from long horizontal roots that spread just beneath the surface." (Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota)

Another attractive feature of this tree is its fall color. It turns from green to yellow to a brilliant orange in late October.

The leaves do not drop in the fall and will cling to the branches through part of the winter much like Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)

We planted a Blue Beech in our yard in 2007 which we purchased from Outback Nursery. It is in the lowest part of our yard growing in the shade of mature black cherries and oaks.

Minnesota is on the western edge of this tree's range. It is native to eastern North America from Ontario and Minnesota south to Arkansas and eastwards. The southern subspecies is C. caroliniana subsp. caroliniana.