Carpinus caroliniana

Description & Overview

Musclewood is a hardy, Wisconsin native tree that exhibits beautiful fall color that ranges from yellow to orangey-red. Multiple stems give it the appearance of a large shrub, but we also commonly grow it as a single-stem tree. Over time, the grey bark exhibits smooth ripples reminiscent of muscles, hence the name Musclewood. This small tree is a favorite for its hardiness, site versatility, and the many benefits that wildlife reaps from its flowers, seeds, and woody stems. You may also know Musclewood as American Hornbeam.

We grow the straight species (this profile) and several cultivars. Learn more about our Musclewood introductions.

Core Characteristics

Mature Height: 25-30 Feet
Mature Spread: 25-30 Feet
Growth Rate: Slow
Growth Form: Tree, Single or Multiple-Stem
Light Requirements: Full Sun to Full Shade
Site Requirements: Moist, Well Drained. Tolerates Dry Soil
Flower: Insignificant
Bloom Period: Spring
Foliage: Green, Serrated Leaves
Fall Color: Orange-Red to Yellow
Fruit Notes: Nutlet

Suggested Uses:

Musclewood naturally grows as an understory shrub and feels at home in the shade provided by larger trees or nearby buildings. It would also make a nice specimen tree in full sun. The dense canopy makes it a nice candidate for a deciduous screen, planted singly or in a row. Musclewood is a wonderful addition to a space being naturalized for the benefit of wildlife.

Salable #5 RootMaker Container Musclewood. Pictures taken late Summer.

We commonly grow Musclewood in various forms including single stem and multi-stem.

Wildlife Value:

Birds use the canopy for nesting habitat. Catkins and seeds are eaten by songbirds, grouse, pheasants, bobwhite, turkey, fox, and squirrels. Rabbits and deer feed on leaves, twigs, and larger stems. Beavers use Musclewood often, as it’s readily available in beaver habitat.

Larvae of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and Red-spotted Purple Butterflies use Musclewood as their host.

Maintenance Tips:

Musclewood is low maintenance. Prune conservatively, focusing on the crossing or dead branches.

It would benefit from being protected during the winter months from hungry rabbits and deer.


Musclewood is juglone tolerant, making it a great addition alongside Black Walnut, Butternut, Bitternut and Shagbark Hickory.

Anthracnose, Botryosphaeria canker, and Nectria Canker have been observed in Musclewood. Overall, they are very hardy and should be able to resist disease when given good care (i.e., diligent watering) while they are establishing their roots.

Leaf Lore:

Musclewood gets its common name due to the rippling, muscular texture of the mature grey bark.

The name American Hornbeam has two parts. When the bark is polished it resembles the polish of a horn. Hornbeam was used to make ox yokes. The “beam” refers to the beam of wood that separated the oxbows.

The wood is strong and has been used in golf clubs, handles, levers, and wedges, tool handles, longbows, and walking sticks.

Companion Plants:

Musclewood would do well with other forest floor plants such as Common Witchhazel, Silky Dogwood, Canada Wild Ginger, and Pennsylvania Sedge. New Jersey Tea, Common Snowberry, Blackhaw VIburnum, and Karmina Geranium pair well with Musclewood in a landscape design.

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