Ironwood Giants

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 Neil Carleton 2by Neil Carleton

Hop-hornbeam, or commonly known as ironwood because of its hard, dense wood, is a slow growing tree that’s native to eastern Canada. The word ‘hornbeam’, of European origin, is from ‘horn’, meaning toughness, and ‘beam’, for tree. Its hop-like fruit hangs in small clusters which mature in the fall and drop in winter.

With its distinctive shaggy bark, in thin peeling strips that are loose at both ends, ironwood is easy to spot on a woodland stroll or trail hike. It’s readily found throughout our area. This is an understory species that thrives in shade

The wood burns very hot in a stove but, as a smaller tree that’s almost impossible to split with an axe, ironwood was never in demand as firewood until the invention of the chainsaw and hydraulic wood splitter. It’s typically less than 10 in / 25.4 cm across. To come across one that’s 16 in / 40.6 cm to 18 in / 45.7 cm in diameter is a good find. Anything larger is a significant discovery.

Along a fence row at Patrick Howard’s farm, on the Scotch Line Road of Mississippi Mills, several ironwood giants have been reaching skyward for more than a century – perhaps several.

Measuring 6.62 ft / 201.9 cm in circumference, and 29 in / 73.7 cm in diameter, the significant size of this fencerow ironwood has resulted from stable growing conditions over a long period of time.
Measuring 6.62 ft / 201.9 cm in circumference, and 29 in / 73.7 cm in diameter, the significant size of this fencerow ironwood has resulted from stable growing conditions over a long period of time.
If trees could talk, there would be tales of ice storms and high winds breaking off branches, and the challenges of healing and covering the wounds. Ironwoods, like other forest trees, are susceptible to rot if moisture enters branch breaks on the trunk and fungi have an opportunity to follow and proliferate.
If trees could talk, there would be tales of ice storms and high winds breaking off branches, and the challenges of healing and covering the wounds. Ironwoods, like other forest trees, are susceptible to rot if moisture enters branch breaks on the trunk and fungi have an opportunity to follow and proliferate.
Starting as an understory seedling in the shade, the wide-spreading crown of this mature ironwood now receives full sunlight during part of the day.
Starting as an understory seedling in the shade, the wide-spreading crown of this mature ironwood now receives full sunlight during part of the day.
Ironwood leaves are soft, sharp-toothed, and 2.4 - 5.1 in / 6 - 13 cm long. They turn a dull yellow in the fall.
Ironwood leaves are soft, sharp-toothed, and 2.4 – 5.1 in / 6 – 13 cm long. They turn a dull yellow in the fall.
Just a little farther along the fence row is the remnant of an incredible giant. Although alive 10 years ago, only part of its lower trunk now remains. It’s possible that all the mature ironwoods in the vicinity were seeded from this ancient progenitor.
Just a little farther along the fence row is the remnant of an incredible giant. Although alive 10 years ago, only part of its lower trunk now remains. It’s possible that all the mature ironwoods in the vicinity were seeded from this ancient progenitor.
At chest height, with some of its girth missing, the original circumference of the mighty ironwood stump was conservatively calculated at 10.2 ft / 3.11 m, with a diameter of 2.99 ft / 91 m. Wow! In comparison, the largest hop-hornbeam found in Ontario, in Southwold Township, Elgin County, was recorded in 1987 with a diameter of 3.18 ft / 97 cm. No circumference measurement is available at http://www.oforest.ca/honour_roll/.
At chest height, with some of its girth missing, the original circumference of the mighty ironwood stump was conservatively calculated at 10.2 ft / 3.11 m, with a diameter of 2.99 ft / 91 m. Wow! In comparison, the largest hop-hornbeam found in Ontario, in Southwold Township, Elgin County, was recorded in 1987 with a diameter of 3.18 ft / 97 cm. No circumference measurement is available at http://www.oforest.ca/honour_roll/.

Thank you to Stephen Miller for his nomination of, and accompaniment to, the ironwood giants at the Howard farm in Mississippi Mills.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <ve3nce@gmail.ca>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Committee is Ron Ayling, 613-804-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.