Featured Favorite: Musclewood (Carpinus Caroliniana)

Field Coordinator Hannah Howard fell in love…


“It was when I was in college and first discovering forestry,” Howard said. 


The object of her affection: musclewood (American hornbeam), a low-growing deciduous tree with leaves that turn bright reddish-orange in the autumn.


“The first time I came across it was in Wildcat Den State Park. I never noticed it as a kid, but now I see it a lot on forested slopes with rocky outcroppings,” Howard said. “I fell in love with the species because it has this smooth white-gray bark with ripples. It looks a lot like a muscle, so it’s easy to identify it once you see it a few times.”


Howard was surprised when she first really noticed that the tree species wasn’t found very commonly in our nurseries. The musclewood is native to Iowa and is a great choice for interesting bark and gorgeous fall color. When a landowner wants fall foliage, he or she often turns to a maple tree. In fact, Iowa Department of Natural Resources Forestry research found that about one-third of public trees are maples.


“Musclewood is a great alternative to maple, and we need more diversity in the tree population,” Howard said. “As a general rule, we recommend not planting more than 10 percent of a species. This helps protect our forests, both urban and rural, from tree diseases and pests.”


Musclewood trees can grow up to 30 feet tall but are usually classified as small to medium-sized trees. Usually the trees have a single trunk, however sometimes the tree has multiple trunks. The tree’s seeds hang in clusters of three-lobed bracts.


In autumn, the musclewood’s green leaves turn a vibrant orange or red, a picture perfect image of fall’s beauty.


“The musclewood’s fall color is stunning. The leaves change to a fiery orange and red that is just gorgeous,” Howard exclaims.


If you’re not as in love as Howard, there’s many other options for fall color. Maybe a bald cypress or a service berry would be a better match for your yard.


Find out more about other species by watching this video:



musclewood, American hornbeam, carpinus caroliniana
musclewood, American hornbeam, carpinus caroliniana

This autumn, fall in love with the vibrant & fiery musclewood. This tree is a great alternative to maple, if a landowner is wanting more color in the fall.