Need a Tree for a Shady Space? Think Blue Beech

It may be mid-February, but aren’t we all dreaming of spring? Did you know that spring is the best time to plant trees and that if you order your trees early, you have a better chance of getting what you want. What should you choose though? Start with something native and that grows well in the conditions you have on offer. Think soil type, amount of sun and water you receive, location, proximity to other trees, plants and buildings, if you want fruit, or have allergies, and of course personal preference.

That still leaves plenty to choose from, so let’s look for inspiration. How about something blue, to match our freezing blue lips and finger tips! We have the perfect suggestion; how about a blue beech!

Blue Beech

You can see the sharp teeth and pointed tip on these blue beech leaves, as well as a leafy bract cluster

Carpinus caroliniana, or Blue Beech, is a member of Betulaceae (the birch family). While Carpinus contains 25 species of trees, only the blue beech is native to North America. It is no surprise that the strong wood of this tree has given it several other common names; American hornbeam, musclewood, and ironwood. Interestingly though, the blue beech is not in the same family as American beech, which is part of the Fagaceae family. And Ostrya virginiana also goes by the name Ironwood (aka Hop-hornbeam), but is another genus altogether. You can see why taxonomy becomes so important with all these common names thrown around. It can get confusing!

The beginning of the wavy ridges on the smooth gray bark of this young blue beech are just visible above the snow

So how do we discern blue beech from some of its similar kin? Like Ironwood and American beech, blue beech has very heavy and hard wood. Where ironwood has grayish-brown bark with longitudinal strips that easily break off, the two beeches are both smooth and gray. Where blue beech is different though is in the wavy ridges that run down the length of the tree. You can’t miss it once you know what you are looking for. Also, the blue beech is the shortest of the bunch, only growing up to 8 metres in height on average. The trunk tends to be fluted with a low, wide-spreading crown above.

Mid-winter is a hard time to identify deciduous trees, but it can still be done. You may not be able to see the simple, bluish-green elliptical leaves, or notice the distinct teeth along the margins that end in a sharp tip, but the ovoid buds are still there. They alternate tightly along slender twigs. In spring, the long seed flowers and pollen flowers emerge at the same time as the leaves. Pollen flowers are in the form of catkins. This monoecious tree has both pollen and seed flowers on the same tree. By late fall, brown ovoid nuts hang in the axil of a 3-lobed, leaf-like bract with 5-7 principal veins. While squirrels and birds love to dine on the seeds and flowers, the twigs and branches of this low-lying tree are usually considered unpalatable by most mammals. It makes it a perfect understory tree for any shady, moist space.

Why should you consider planting a blue beech this spring? Not only is it native to this part of Ontario, but its strength makes it a great choice for tool handle making. There are relatively no insect or disease issues with this hardy tree. In autumn, the leaves turn red, but the dangling catkins add winter-interest when the rest of the landscape seems barren. It is best transplanted as a container-grown tree, so think about placing an order today. If you’ve got a shady spot in your yard begging for another tree, blue beech just might be the best choice for you.

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