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Musclewood Wings

Ranger Steve’s Nature Niche

By Ranger Steve Mueller

By Ranger Steve Mueller


Flying and landing on the snow, musclewood seeds (Carpinus caroliniana) sailed on wings to potential germination sites. The winged seeds were released from matured flower clusters that turned tan at the ends of branch shoots. The seed clusters remained after leaves fell. 

From fruit clusters, seeds break free and drift propelled by wind gusts. The small seed nut is attached to what we might think is a tiny aborted maple leaf. Instead it is a “leaf-like” bract providing buoyancy in the breeze that aids the spread of a seed from the parent. The nuts only drift a distance about 1.5 times the tree’s height.

The bract has two small pointed side lobes with a larger central pointed lobe. On the snow, bracts with their nutlet lay exposed and later seem to blend with leaf litter when snow melts. The small nuts not noticed by most of us during the winter will be found by mammals or birds and eaten for their rich protein. We might sit in front of the TV eating peanuts but wildlife search the landscape for scattered morsels. 

The tree is also known as ironwood, blue beech, and American or hop hornbeam.

Leaves and fruits have high nutritional value as wildlife food but it is not a preferred food by deer. Deer will use small stems that are about one to two inches in diameter during rut to scrape dying velvet from itching antler coverings. Many small stemmed tree or shrub species are used for that purpose but musclewood has a dense hard wood that does not give easily. The bark is thin and easily damaged by deer in rut or by fire.

Warblers and finches feed on the nuts and transport seeds farther than wind. Wood ducks and ruffed grouse seek the nuts. Squirrels, rodents, and rabbits eat the nuts and aid dispersal. The trees are used as a nest site for one of the most melodious birds of the woods–the Wood Thrush. Cavity nesting birds like the Black-capped Chickadee nest in the small trees. I have found a chickadee nest in a tree about three inches in diameter. 

The musclewood tree does not become large so it is ideal for small yards. They can be pruned to encourage a single trunk or a multi-stemmed hedge border. 

As an Lepidopterist, I find the tree a joyous neighbor supporting many desirable butterflies and moths like the io moth, striped hairstreak, a variety of inchworm moths, beautiful hooktip moths, and blinded sphinx moths. If I get to the trees before foraging birds have eaten their fill, I find insects like plant bugs, leaf hoppers, aphids, metallic and long-horned woodboring beetles. 

An amazing diversity of life can be supported by planting a native tree like the musclewood. Some people know it as an ironwood because its dense small celled wood grain is used to make tool handles. Another common tree in our area is the hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and is also called ironwood. Both are in the birch family but have distinct appearance differences. I do not refer to either as ironwood to avoid confusion.

The musclewood has thin smooth gray bark with a rippling muscle appearance (like my biceps–well I wish). The hop hornbeam has bark with narrow vertical parallel strips of bark. Where branches died and fell, unique bulges pepper the tree trunk. Both trees are small shade tolerant understory trees that grow under large trees. 

Exploratory attention to leaf details make tree separation easy even without the presence of the rest of the tree. The musclewood has leaves with veins that do not branch as they approach the leaf margin, Hop hornbeam leaf veins branch near the edge of the leaf. 

Look for musclewoods in well drained moist soils where they do well in partial shade. They grow under and around maples, oaks, or a variety of other trees. Attract abundant life to your yard by planting a musclewood. Make arrangements to visit Ody Brook to collect some nuts. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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