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A North American native tree boasting a kaleidoscope of color, American hornbeam unfurls striking reddish purple leaves in spring. The leaves turn dark green in summer and then come ablaze with shades of yellow and orange-red in fall. This tree brings interest to the winter landscape, too, by displaying blue-gray bark with a slightly rippled appearance that earned the common name musclewood. At 20–35 feet tall and wide, the American hornbeam tree suits most residential landscapes. It’s also notably pest- and disease-resistant.
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Where to Plant American Hornbeam
American hornbeam typically comes from nurseries as a single-stem tree. Most cultivars of American hornbeam are columnar in shape when they are young, then develop a pyramidal shape as they age. Plant narrow, upright trees in groups to create a living screen or windbreak. Or use this tree as a specimen plant in a narrow yard or in a curbside planting strip. (A low grower, it can take decades to reach full height—so plan accordingly.)
Caring for American Hornbeam
Plant American hornbeam in full or part shade and moist, well-drained soil. An understory tree in its native habitat, it will grow well with as little as four hours of bright light a day. Although this tree tolerates clay or poorly drained soil, it will grow more slowly there than a tree planted in well-drained soil. American hornbeam is tolerant of both drought and shade.
Plant American hornbeam in spring and water the plant deeply after planting. Continue watering regularly during the first growing season. Spread a 2-inch-thick layer of mulch over the root zone to prevent soil moisture loss. Once established, American hornbeam is nearly maintenance-free. Prune away any damaged branches as soon as possible.