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Water Loving Trees - The Hornbeams

( Originally Published 1927 )



Two genera of little trees in the same family with the birches are frequently met in the woods, often modestly hiding under the larger trees. One is the solitary representative of its genus : the other has a sister species.

The hornbeams grow very slowly and their wood is close-grained, heavy, and hard. In flexibility, strength, and ability to stand strain, it rivals steel. Before metals so generally became competitors of woods in construction work, hornbeam was the only wood for rake teeth, levers, mallets, and especially for the beams of ox yokes. It out-wore the stoutest oak, the toughest elm. Springiness adapted it for fork handles and the like. Bowls and dishes of hornbeam lasted forever, and would never leak nor crack. "Ironwood" is the name used wherever the wood was worked.

American Hornbeam

Carpinus Carolinianum, Walt.

The American hornbeam has bluish gray bark, very fine in texture, from which the name "blue beech," is common in some localities. "Water beech" points out the tree's preference for rich swamp land.

The trunk and limbs are strangely swollen, sometimes like a fluted column, oftener irregularly, the swelling under the bark suggesting the muscular development of a gymnast's arm.

In favorable places the hornbeams grow into regular oval heads, their branches dividing into a multitude of wiry, supple twigs. Crowded under oaks and other forest growth, they crouch and writhe; and their heads flatten into tangled masses of foliage.

The delicate leaves, strong-ribbed, oval, pointed, turn to red and orange in autumn. (See illustration, page 87.) The paired nutlets are provided with a parachute each, so that the wind can sow them broadcast. This wing is leafy in texture, shaped like a maple leaf, and curved into the shape of a boat. After they have broken apart, the nut-lets hang by threads, tough as hornbeam fibres always are.

At last, away they sail, to start new trees if they fall in moist soil.

The European hornbeam was a favorite tree for making the "pleached alleys," of which old-world garden-lovers were proud. A row of trees on each side of a promenade were pruned and trained to cover an arching framework, and to interlace their supple branches so that at length no other framework was needed, and one walked through a tunnel of green so closely interlaced as to make walls and roof that shut out light and wind and rain ! Hedges, fences, and many fancies of the gardener were worked out with this hornbeam, so willingly did it lend itself to cutting and moulding into curious forms.

Hop Hornbeam Ostrya Virginiana, Willd.

The hop hornbeam has habits like the other ironwood and an equal reputation for the hardness of its wood. The tree, however, wears scaly, shaggy brown bark, suggesting in its manner of scaling off the shagbark hickory. Its outlets are packed separate in loose papery bags, and together form a loose, cone-like cluster, like the fruit of a hop vine. The wind scatters these buoyant little bags, that travel far.

This tree often twists in growing, and the trunk shows spiral furrows. "Hard-tack," "beetle-wood," "lever-wood "—all take us back to the pioneer who put this wood to such good uses, and who was glad to have these little trees growing in his woodlot. In hickories, even, he had not the equal of them for strength and hardness.

Knowlton's Ironwood

0. Knowlton, Cov.

Knowlton's ironwood is found nowhere but in a thick grove on the southern slope of the canyon of the Colorado in Arizona, about seventy miles north of Flagstaff. Here these trees are numerous, crouching under oaks, their twisted branches ending in drooping twigs, bearing the characteristic pale green hops in autumn, small oval leaves, and the catkin flowers in spring. Such a restricted distribution for a distinct species of trees is unmatched in the annals of botany.



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