Also known as American Hophornbeam, the Ironwood is a tough native tree that is commonly found mixed with the oak, maple and basswood of the Big Woods forest ecosystems. Ironwood carries the botanical name of Ostrya virginiana, and grows to a medium size of 40 feet tall by 25 feet wide, and provides a nice option to add a tree to our landscapes that has some interesting characteristics.
As the name Ironwood suggests, this tree variety has wood that is extremely hard when it has dried thoroughly, and provides plenty of heat when burned. Pioneers are reported to have used Ironwood trees for tool handles, levers, sled runners, wooden dishes and various items of wagon gear. The hardness of the wood made it difficult to work with, but once items were completed, they were virtually indestructible. When growing in the wild, Ironwood can often be found pioneering out into sunny meadows or woodland edges, but also demonstrates fairly good shade tolerance.
My greatest appreciation for the Ironwood is its ability to retain many of its leaves throughout the winter, adding layered highlights of rusty tan color to the dormant landscape. Late in the day as low light streams through the leaves still clinging to the branches of our Ironwood trees, they take on a beautiful glow.
During spring, Ironwoods produce crisply defined and deeply veined leaves that usually stay blemish free the whole growing season. It’s a very nice texture to add to the landscape, and in summer an unexpected treat is the seeds that form with an appearance of a little bit like hops. Layered scales are gracefully arranged in a fan shape, are light in color, and contrast well with the dark green leaves. The hummingbirds love to perch on the branches in one of our Ironwood trees in between their visits to our feeders, and when we’re not enjoying the amazing flight of the hummers, we can enjoy the ornamental appeal of the Ironwood seed clusters.
Ironwood can be used as a larger ornamental tree, or in a location where a tree of medium size is wanted for shade rather than a full sized oak, maple, linden or elm. Ironwood is also useful where a visual buffer planting is desired other than commonly used spruce, pine and arborvitae. The tendency of ironwoods to hold quite a few of their leaves gives partial screening throughout much of the winter, and is a nice “out of the box” choice.