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"Muscle-wood", plus "The Porcelainberry Invasion"

American Hornbeam - Carpinus caroliniana - aka Muscle-wood

American Hornbeam - Carpinus caroliniana

American hornbeam leaf is doubly toothed

American hornbeam, also known as ironwood, musclewood and blue-beech, is a small tree, native to Delaware, that tolerates wet sites well and can often be found along the shady edges of streams.

American hornbeam growing along a stream. (Pin oak in the foreground)

One of the nicknames comes from the smooth, muscular-looking, gray bark of the trunk and large branches. Slow growing, the trees have very dense, hard wood, hence the ironwood nickname.

Smooth, muscular-looking bark

Native from southern Canada to Florida and from the Atlantic seaboard to a bit west of the Mississippi River, American hornbeam trees grow from 20 – 40 feet tall and seldom reach much more than a foot in diameter. In fact, the American hornbeam with the largest trunk in Delaware, located near Felton, has a circumference of 41 inches, equaling a diameter of 13 inches.

The flowers are actually small, green catkins and can be found from April until June. Like other beeches, American hornbeams are monoecious (they have male flowers and female flowers in separate structures on the same plant). The male flowers are 1 to 1½ inches long and the female flowers are 2 to 3 inches long with three-lobed bracts. Fruit are small, winged nutlets attached to three-lobed bracts, that are just appearing on the hornbean trees at this time of year.

Don’t confuse American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) with Eastern hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Although they are both in the birch family, they are very different trees indeed. American hornbeam has a smooth bark and prefers wet soil while Eastern hophornbeam has shaggy bark and can be found in drier, mountainous regions.

Eastern Hophornbeam Bark - Missouri Dept. of Conservation


Musclewood by Jeff Gundy

Blue Hen to Buttermilk Falls is an easy 20 minutes, even with the roots and creek to slow you down. But it always took an hour with Nelson, who never saw a tree he couldn’t explain, a patch of woods that didn’t signify.

The Horne-bound tree is a tough kind of Wood, that requires so much paines in riving as is almost incredible, being the best to make bolles [bowls] and dishes, not subject to cracke or leake. —William Wood, New England’s Prospect, 1634

My farm boy half, always bent on arriving, sighed when Nelson stopped at a gnarly little tree, its trunk no bigger than my calf, and said, Oh,this is musclewood. The settlers tried to use it, he said, but found the wood so tough they mostly gave up, learned to just let it be.

American Hornbeam. Leaves emerge reddish-purple, change to dark green, go yellow to orange-red in fall. Blue-gray bar, fluted with long, sinewy ridges. Difficult to transplant due to deep spreading lateral roots. Slow growing. The hard wood is used to make golf clubs, tool handles, and mallets. —The Morton Arboretum

Touch it, he said, and I wrapped a hand around the trunk, a comfortable fit. My flesh still remembers the grooved bark, how it spiraled upward like a long loose-threaded screw. My hand told me the wood I clutched was dense, pale, stiff beyond even the oaks and maples, ready to last a long time between the trail and the creek, easy with a flood now and then.

The Ojibwe people used musclewood as ridgepoles in wigwams. Decoctions of its bark were used in Cherokee, Iroquois, and Delaware medicine to treat painful urination, “diseases peculiar to women,” and diarrhea, respectively. The Heartwood Tree Company

Nelson moved west. I’m stuck at home. This absurd, apocalyptic year creeps slowly toward God knows what. But the little musclewood is still there, leaning into darkness and day between the creek and trail, whirling and steady, pressing out and shedding its new leaves and seeds and flowers, tough as any tree or trail or creek, any walker stopped by a curious friend and asked to look, to touch something native but not common, unassuming, discreet, of slight human use but entirely at home in its place.


The insidious invasion of Porcelainberry. It's really creepy stuff.

mature Porcelain berries - Olmsted Park Conservancy photo

Porcelainberry, aka Porcelain berry or Amur peppervine, (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) in my opinion is the most harmful vine ever to invade the mid-Atlantic states. It’s even worse than Japanese honeysuckle, or arguably, English ivy. We are just in the last few years beginning to notice large Porcelainberry vine infestations, but trust me, the worst is yet to come. The other day while parking in the lot at the Camden Walmart I happened to notice two small P. berry vines out in the open in the parking lot island. I yanked them up and left them to suffer in the hot sun.

Porcelainberry is related to grapes and the leaves are difficult to distinguish from our common native wild grapes. But a sharp, educated eye can tell the difference:

1. The bark of grape vines gets shaggy as it matures (it shreds).

Native grape vine

Porcelainberry vines have small, bumpy dots called lenticels.

Invasive porcelainberry vine

2. The flowers and fruit of grape vines droop downward from the vine in familiar “bunches,” while on P. berry they are held upwards above the vine in an umbrella shape.

Look closely, there are hundreds of tiny P. berry buds in this photo. Each one will eventually become a berry containing several seeds.

So, once (not if) you determine that porcelainberry has invaded your property, how do you rid yourself of it? This time of the year it’s important to do it quickly, before the berries mature and are spread by our feathered friends. Lots of sites say that the vine roots can be pulled or dug up, but unless the vines are very young, I think you will soon find how futile that can be.

Porcelainberry completely covers these trees along-side of Williamsville Road, just South of the RR tracks

An easier and more thorough solution is to prune the vines near the ground and then quickly paint the stubs with a glyphosphate herbicide such as in Roundup. Using disposable gloves, pour a small amount in a paper cup and apply a few drops to the freshly cut-off end of the vine with a disposable brush. You can leave the cut-off vine where it is if it doesn’t have any ripe berries, and it will eventually decompose. If it does have ripe berries, at least cut the berrys off, bag them and throw in your trash, along with the brush and paper cup. Remember that any of the product that drips on green foliage might kill that plant as well.

Now that you know what Porcelainberry looks like, keep your eyes open and you'll see it EVERYWHERE.

IT'S EVERYWHERE! That's Porcelainberry trying to climb up the wall next to the drive-up lane of Popeyes in Milford

Herbicide treatment is most effective when applied toward the end of the growing season, when plants are actively transporting nutrients from stems and leaves to their root systems.


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Jul 07, 2023

I was so sad when I learned that porcelain berry is an invasive. I think it's stunningly beautiful. I also think bittersweet is gorgeous and, unfortunately, it too is invasive and pervasive.

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