Mystery Plant! #699

John Nelson

Posted December 29, 2022

By John Nelson

Winter hasn’t even started yet, but it sure looks like it in my backyard. Practically all of the leaves are fallen, and we’ve had two hard frosts here in central South Carolina. I am grateful that in my part of the world, the winters are relatively mild, and snow is a rare event. We all need to bear with whatever kinds of winters we have to put up with, and it’s that way for plants, too. This week’s Mystery Plant has settled down for the chilly months, getting ready to resprout its leaves in the spring.

Photo by John Nelson

It’s is a native, deciduous tree, found from eastern Canada to Nebraska, and south to Florida. It occurs widely in all the Southeastern states, so you have surely seen it somewhere, almost always in wet 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’ or so tall.  Lots of slender branches, very twiggy. It produces very small, insignificant flowers, both male and female, in the spring, but the handsome, toothy leaves (which remind me of those of a beech or a birch) and the bracts surrounding the flowers are bright, attractive green. It’s not much for a fall color tree, as the dead leaves are sort of gray or brown. Those little flowers will form small, ribbed nutlets surrounded by the papery bracts, dry and papery. (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 in corsages or in bouquets. Maybe I should just say that they are “humble”.) All in all, I think this is an attractive tree, but I don’t see it often used in landscaping.

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 (especially for beginning botany students) 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 the students on our field trips that if they do lots of pull-ups on this tree, they’ll develop big arm muscles…and that that is how you remember what it is. 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, SC. 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, and a bit of a Latin workout!!

[Answer: “Ironwood,” “Hornbeam,” Carpinus caroliniana]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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