Mystery tree found in states east of Mississippi River

Posted

It's the end of summer, and our campus is crawling with students, all young botanists, and newly arrived all over the place. It's a very busy time for everybody, and definitely for botanists. There is no end of plant life to discover and study wherever you are in the Southeast, and I hope you will be paying attention to the plants around you in the upcoming early autumn season.

Here's a plant that is found in every state east of the Mississippi River - and also a bit west of it. I will almost bet that it grows where you are, or not far away. It is a native, deciduous tree, almost always found in wet, or at least damp, places. It is particularly at home in floodplains of deep swamps, often leaning over creeks.

It is usually a small tree, commonly considered a member of the understory, although every now and then you can find one that is up to 40 feet or so tall. It makes lots of cool branches, very twiggy. It produces very small, insignificant flowers, both male and female, in the early spring, and these eventually form ribbed nutlets surrounded by papery bracts.

I know I shouldn't say that the flowers are "insignificant." They are quite significant in their own way, of course, and after all, they are the reason that this species is able to reproduce. It's just that the flowers probably won't be showing up in corsages or in bouquets. Maybe I should just say that they are "humble."

Handsome, toothy leaves, very shiny and smooth on the upper surface, will appear later on, these looking somewhat like the leaves of a birch. Or a beech.

I think this is an attractive tree, but I don't see it often used in landscaping. To me, the foliage isn't particularly impressive in terms of autumnal coloration, but that shouldn't be any reason not to try it in your yard, provided that you have a damp corner. The wood is particularly interesting, in being exceptionally hard and dense; the trees are difficult to cut for this reason.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this species, and surely the easiest identification trick, involves the trunk. The trunk of the tree is covered with thin, mostly smooth bark, and even on small trees it is commonly rippled and waved, appearing to some like taut muscle. Maybe we should be looking for it at the beach! Anyway, I always tell students on our field trips that if they do lots of pull-ups on this tree, they'll develop big arm muscles. They love that.

By the way, this species received its scientific name in 1788, described by the British-born botanist Thomas Walter, who lived along the Santee River in present-day Berkeley County. The book that Walter published was called "Flora Caroliniana," and it represents the first American treatment of plants employing the "new" Linnaean system of classification. Great reading!!

Answer: "Ironwood," "Hornbeam," Carpinus caroliniana

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.