Have you ever run across what looked like hops while hiking deep in the woods? Actual hops are a vine that require a good bit of sunlight, but hop hornbeam is an understory tree that produces hop like catkins that litter the forest floor in July and August all across the eastern half of the United States. They’re no good for brewing, but they do contain tasty seeds, and they’ll help you identify a useful, edible and medicinal tree species: Ostrya virginiana. (Also known as hop hornbeam, ironwood, leverwood and deerwood.)
Identifying Hop Hornbeam
Hop hornbeam is a scrub understory tree native to the Eastern United States. Though they can grow to 2.5 feet in diameter and as much as 50 feet tall, hornbeam seldom reach more than 30 feet, and it’s rare to find a tree over a foot in diameter. To foresters, they’re considered a “weed tree” that outcompetes more profitable tree species. Foragers, however, know that “weeds” often make the best eating.
Their growth pattern is usually crooked, and the bark covers the trunk in narrow vertical strips that are loose at both ends. Leaves are serrated at the edge and oblong, growing 2 to 4 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide.
Sometimes planted as a landscape or street tree because it develops lovely coppery tan leaves in the fall that it holds well into winter.
While the bark is distinctive, the hop-like catkins make this tree easy to identify in the summer and fall. The Sibley Tree Book describes them as “a cluster of pointed papery bladders, each enclosing a seed.”
Peel apart a catkin and inside each husk, you’ll find a small almond-shaped seed. When they first form in spring and summer the papery husk is a light green, and the seed is small and unripe if harvested. Later into the fall, the seed matures and the husk around each seed dries to a tan brown.
Hop hornbeam prefers moist soils, and can often be found with linden, ash and hemlock.
Uses for Hop Hornbeam
Hop hornbeam is a dense, hardwood with a high BTU. It makes excellent firewood, and I’ve been warned by old Vermonters not to put too many ironwood pieces in the stove at once to prevent overheating. I’ve learned the hard way that they’re right…
Since the wood is so hard and dense, it’s used for sleigh runners and tool handles that take a continuous beating.
The wood and bark are medicinal. According to the book Native American Ethnobotany, teas or infusions made with the bark can be used topically for aches and pains, including full-body baths to treat sore muscles or arthritis, and as a mouthwash for toothache.
As a woodland forager, I was excited to learn that the catkins contain edible nuts that are an important source of food to birds and small woodland mammals, and a tasty snack for humans. They’re quite small, about the size of a sunflower seed.
The good news is crops of hornbeam catkins can be heavy, and they’re easy to find and collect from the forest floor. They can be eaten raw, or dry roasted in a pan.
The seeds in the image below are a bit under-ripe.
When the pods are collected from the ground, check for a dark tan seed rather than those with a hint of green like below in the picture. If collecting directly off the tree, wait until Mid-October to begin checking for ripeness in your area.