American Hop Hornbeam, Ironwood, Leverwood
by: Gilbert A Smith ISA Board Certified Master Arborist
Ironwood is one of my favorite trees because it is a native understory in the forests all around us. It has been here longer than most of our common street trees like Honeylocust, Norway Maple or Magnolia yet no one knows it. It is a nice small tree, (30 feet by 20 feet) and unlike most trees it is shade tolerant which makes it desirable in a mature landscape. Its bark and leaves look deceptively like American Elm so it blends in and you may not even know you're looking at it.
They call it Hop Hornbeam because the fruit looks like a hop (used in making beer) and the wood is so strong it was used for a beam or yoke for horned animals, like Oxen. Also called Leverwood, because the wood was used for tool handles that require strong leverage and shock absorption. The male flower is a catkin which looks like a cat tail hanging down, it has been on the tree all winter and along with the fruit it provides food for Grouse, Turkey, Bob White, Pheasant and Finch. Native Americans used it for sore muscles, cough, tooth ache, and Tuberculosis.
If you come upon it in N.E. Illinois you have indeed found a rare specimen. In states east of here it grows in rocky, arid out crops so it is considered tough. But in N.E. Illinois you'veundoubtedly found it growing where there was once a glacial creek or river bed long since covered but providing the Ironwood with good drainage. Wherever people tread however, they invariably change the drainage in our clay soils drowning the roots and chasing our Hornbeams away. When I find them they tell me the story of soils unharmed and therefore good tree planting sites for most species.They are also a living piece of history dating back 15,000 years.
If it is hard to find in the landscapes it is harder still to find in nurseries. You can find it at Connor Shaw’s Possibility Place in Monee, IL. Also you may find it at the Lake County Forest Preserve Plant Sale.