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Blue beech

Rounded plant shape of a green-leafed blue beech tree
Rounded plant shape of blue beech. Photo: Bailey Nurseries

Blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana), also called musclewood or American hornbeam, is a small, slow-growing tree, native to Minnesota and the eastern U.S.

In Minnesota, it is found in the understory in forests of maple, basswood, oak, cherry and white birch.

In landscapes, it works well as a small shade tree and in shady, naturalized woodlands. 

One of the few landscape trees that does well in full shade, beech adapts to a wide range of soil textures, moisture levels, drainage patterns and pH levels.

Blue beech can be grown as a large shrub, a single-stemmed tree or a multi-stemmed tree.

The attractive smooth bluish-gray bark on this tree provides multiple seasons of interest. The fluted “muscle-like” wood on the branches and trunk is another striking feature of this plant.

Seeds, buds, twigs and leaves are food sources for songbirds and small wildlife.

 

Blue-gray bark with vertical ridges
Fluted wood and blue-gray bark of a blue beech tree. Photo: J. Ruter, Univ. of GA, Bugwood.org

Description

  • Deciduous; leaves drop in fall

  • Height: 20 to 35 feet

  • Width: 20 to 35 feet

  • Has an oval to rounded form

  • Bluish-gray bark with fluted appearance of wood

  • Leaves: dark green in summer and change to colorful tones of orange, red and yellow in fall

  • Buds: brownish red scales edged in white along the branches provide winter interest

  • Male flowers: catkins hang from branches throughout winter until they bloom in May

  • Female flowers: catkins appear in spring and are pollinated in May, resulting in fruit

  • Fruit: hop-like fruit hangs from branches until they break apart and shed their seed in fall

Green leaf-like flowers on a barren blue beech branch
Male catkins of blue beech
Brownish red scaly buds
Blue beech buds. Photo: C. Evans, Univ. of IL, Bugwood.org
Light green hop-like fruit hanging on a branch with green leaves
Foliage and hop-like fruit

Growing blue beech

  • Hardiness zone: 3 to 9

  • Does well in full sun to full shade

  • Tolerates short-term periodic flooding

  • Dense hard wood protects from ice storms

  • Recommended soil properties:

    • Soil pH: 4.0 to 7.4

    • Loam soils, can tolerate clays

    • Moist to well-drained soil, can tolerate poorly drained soils

  • Have your soil tested by the U of M Soil Testing Lab

Common problems

No serious pests or stresses are known for blue beech in Minnesota.

Red-orange leaves of a blue beech tree
Fall color on a blue beech tree. Photo: Bailey nurseries

Cultivated varieties of blue beech for Minnesota

Cultivated varieties are selected for fall color, plant form and size, and pest and stress tolerances

One cultivar is recommended for Minnesota:

  • Firespire - upright with red and orange foliage in fall, 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide

Non-cultivated varieties are available, but make sure that you buy trees that are adapted to your region.

Rebecca Koetter and Kathy Zuzek, former Extension educator

Reviewed in 2018

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