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This member of the birch family is one of our rarest native trees. It is mainly found in scattered patches around Prince County, although there are small amounts in other areas. Also known as eastern hophornbeam, it is a relatively short-lived and small tree. It grows to be 40 ft. (12.5 m) tall and 12 in. (30 cm) in diameter, although it rarely reaches this size. It is a slender tree, with leaves like yellow birch, although ironwood leaves have teeth of two different sizes. The bark of ironwood is light brown and scaly, shredding off in narrow, curling strips.
Ironwood prefers rich, moist soil and grows best in the partial shade of other trees.
In September, small, greenish seeds can be collected from the trees. The seeds are enclosed in a papery sac, with many sacs being held together in a cluster like true hops. When ready for harvest, the clusters will start to turn brown and some will drop to the ground. Pick seeds off the tree if possible. When you separate the seed from the sac, you might want to use thin gloves, since the sacs have fiberglass-like hairs that stick into your fingers. Plant seeds every 2 in. (5 cm) in rows 4 in. (10 cm) apart, at a depth of 1/8 in. (3 mm) and mulch for the winter. If the bed is in full sun, some form of shading should be provided during the growing season. Most seeds take two years to germinate but any that germinate the first summer should be transplanted to another bed. This avoids the problem of having older plants in the bed when seedlings are germinating the second year.
The buds and catkins of ironwood are used by ruffed grouse and red squirrels. The seeds are eaten by purple finch, rose-breasted grosbeak and other birds.
Areas of Usage:
This tree almost lives up to its name. Its wood is our hardest and heaviest and in the past was used for tool handles, sled runners, mallets, ladder rungs and firewood. However, until ironwood is much more common in our woodlands, it should be a protected species in almost all woodlands – it is critical that we keep as many sources of seed as possible. It is an excellent choice for under-plantings or inter-planting after a mixed wood thinning, and will help provide diversity of height in older forests. As well, it is a good for landscape plantings where there is shade.
Ironwood, or as it is sometimes called, hop hornbeam, is not very common to this province. It has been seen in the western section of the province. It is a small tree commonly 25 to 35 feet in height and 6 to 10 inches in diameter on average sites. The trunk is slender, nearly always erect, and usually extends to the top of the tree. In the open, the crown is broad and round-topped. while in dense stands it is narrow and cone-shaped. It prefers rich, moist but well-drained, gravelly or loam slopes and ridges and is seldom if ever, found in pure stands. It does not like shade and is commonly found with striped maple and mountain maples, beech, sugar maple, yellow birch, white ash and cedar. Ironwood produces one of the hardest and toughest native woods and is used for vehicle stock, tool handles and spring poles. Because of its small size it is not important as a lumber product.