This is a tree with a few different common names. One is Blue Beech, in reference to the blue-gray, smooth bark that looks similar to American Beech. It is also known as American Hornbeam; “horn” means “tough” and “beam” means “tree” in Old English.
It is noted for both its interesting bark and interesting mature fruits, as well as its Fall leaf colors. When found in the open, it may reach 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. Though I’ve seen it more frequently as understory tree in mature forests.
The smooth gray bark is one of the most distinguishing features of this tree. It has a sinewy surface resembling a muscled arm.
Ironwood has separate male and female flowers that emerge in early May. The resulting fruit, known as a nutlet, begins to form in late May, and is surrounded by bracts. These clusters hang downwards and are another attractive aspect of this tree.
An additional appealing feature of Ironwood is its fall color. It turns from green to yellow to a brilliant orange in late October. After finally turning brown, the leaves tend to stay on the tree well into Winter.
Ironwood is strong and hard, but because the tree is so small, it is rarely harvested for the manufacturing of wood products. Nevertheless, it is useful for tool handles, levers, and mallets.
This tree provides an important food source for Gray Squirrels in bottomland hardwood forests.