Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Wildflower Wednesday: Ostrya virginiana is still dancing in the garden

Can you see the dancer in the tree?

I do.

She's still there, dancing in the tree all year round. It's been forever ago that I first saw her; so long ago that I can no longer remember when. What I do remember is saving this beauty from an invasive Japanese Wisteria that was strangling it as it climbed snake like up the tree. It could have been my imagination, but, I know the tree breathed a sigh of relief when the wisteria was cut away.

Since that time the American hophornbeam has been a lovely year round beauty in the garden.

The golden colored fall leaves she was wearing have turned a crispy brown.

 But, she's still beautiful to me. It's a gem of a tree with year round good looks that don't disappear in winter. You just have to look up to see the Dancer in the Tree reaching for the sky. She's lost her high kicking limbs, but, she's still there.
 As it ages the branches become irregular and have a beautiful layered grace to them.

It's a lovely small tree, that I would miss terribly if it weren't here. My goal has been to provide habitat for critters in a visually attractive space and Ostrya virginiana brings grace, beauty, while providing for wildlife.

Ostrya virginiana also provides shade for wildflowers and mosses to grow. Each spring when the sun warms the soil,  Trilliums, false rue anemones, spring beauties, toothworts and other spring ephemeral blooms crowd the woodland floor beneath her skirt.

Ostrya virginiana is a naturally occurring understory tree in dry woodlands like Clay and Limestone and it's planted itself among the oaks and shagbark hickories that populate my garden. I can see it as a specimen along walks, in parks and of course, in a naturalized or woodland garden like mine. It's small, rarely growing taller then 30 feet or so. An easy tree that thrives in the dry mesic soil. It doesn't mind rocky slopes or ridges; it's very shade tolerate, which makes it a perfect small tree to thrive under canopy trees in established yards. It isn't bothered by most insects or fungal diseases. It has both male and female flowers (monoecious), so, it needs no pollinators, just the wind.

But, just because it doesn't need pollinators, doesn't mean it has little wildlife value. Like many native trees it's the preferred food for the caterpillars of several dozen moths and birds and animals rely on Hop Hornbeam as a source of food. These species include the Ruffed Grouse (buds, catkins), Downy Woodpecker (seeds), and Purple Finch (seeds). Among mammals, the Fox Squirrel, Red Squirrel, Woodland Deer Mouse, and White-Footed Mouse eat the seeds and buds, while the White-Tailed Deer browses sparingly on the twigs and leaves. (Illinois wildflowers)

Hophornbeam is a native of the eastern half of the US and Canada; including most of the Midwestern states and Texas. It has has serrated leaves that resemble an elm. The stems are very slender, giving the tree a fine textured appearance during the winter season. The fall foliage turns a most becoming yellow....and when the wind blows they flutter and bounce a golden light around the garden. Sometimes the coppery brown leaves stay the entire winter accenting the textured bark and twisted and knobby trunk.

The Particulars
Ostrya virginiana
Common Name: eastern hop hornbeam or American hophornbeam
Type: Tree
Family: Betulaceae
Native Range: Cape Breton, Ontario to Minnesota, and Eastern North America, south to Texas and Florida; Mexico and Central America.
Zone: 3 to 9
Growth habit: Somewhat pyramidal when young, usually rounded or oval later. Has many horizontal or drooping branches.
Height: 25.00 to 40.00 feet
Spread: 20.00 to 30.00 feet
This tree has interesting reddish brown bark that is broken into narrow strips that are loose at both ends. The bark does peel off in places, but, don't worry, it's okay.
Bloom Time: April
Flower and fruit: Monoecious

female flowers
Female catkins are visible in April.
Male catkins
 Male catkins are usually about 1 inch long, grouped in threes and visible throughout the winter.

Fruits are nutlets enclosed in "hop-like" pale green, papery capsules.

Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium
Maintenance: Low
Reproduction: The woody root system produces no vegetative offsets; this tree reproduces by reseeding itself into new areas.
Suggested Use: Shade Tree, Street Tree
Tolerate: Deer, Drought, Clay Soil
Comments: American hophornbeam, which loves hilly areas,
has papery capsules containing nuts that are eaten by a variety of wildlife including grouse, bobwhite, deer, pheasant, rabbit and turkey. This tree has interesting reddish brown bark that is broken into narrow strips that are loose at both ends. Young American hophornbeam trees look a great deal like sweet birch (Betula lenta). In the wild, this tree provides shade for wildflowers and mosses.  Its wood is very hard and is sometimes used to make tool handles. The tree has light brown heartwood and thick, white sapwood.

Hophornbeams are totally under appreciated native trees that would be lovely in our gardens, if only we knew about them! You aren't going to find them at your local garden center, so you will have to search the internet or native plant nurseries. Trust me, this little understory woodland tree is worth the trouble to find.

Welcome to Clay and Limestone and Wildflower Wednesday. This year, I am especially grateful for the health and well being of my family; for loving and supportive friends; for rain that finally fell in Middle Tennessee; for wildflowers that bloomed no matter how horrid the weather has been and for the trees that shade my garden and add to the beauty that surrounds our home. Thank you all for joining me this year to share and celebrate the wonderful wildflowers that live and thrive in our gardens. Remember, it doesn't matter if they are in bloom or not, you can still share them.  Please leave a comment and add your name to Mr Linky so others can pop over to see your Wildflower Wednesday post.

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. How wonderful to have a skirt of trilliums!

  2. That is a special tree, for so many reasons! I didn't see the dancer at first, but when I scrolled down, I got it! Happy Thanksgiving, Gail. :)

    1. I am so glad you spotted her. I wish you could have seen her doing the high kick.

  3. What a beautiful tree. I surely have seen this but I don't remember.

  4. Fantastic tree! Wish I had room for one.

  5. What a wonderful tree. I think the nutlets are eaten by several bird species. Wish I had room for one.

  6. Gail, I'm catching up on emails and blogs and just read this one. Yes, I see the tree and feel like dancing alongside it. I planted four hophornbeams at Glen Villa about a dozen years ago and so far, they are surviving albeit growing slowly. I'll be more attentive to them next year as a result of your post -- so thank you!


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson