Height: Usually less than 35 feet; up to 60 on occasion
Lifespan: Not terribly long-lived; up to 150 years
Fall Foliage: Usually yellowish; occasionally orange
Range: The eastern United States, west to the Mississippi River Valley
Typical Habitat: Most commonly found along the banks of streams, rivers and lakes
The Ironwood: A Riparian Specialist (But Willing to Relocate)
Ironwoods thrive (and often become quite common) in shady, fertile, riparian habitats. They often become quite common in these locations, as they grow well in the shade and tolerate the occasional inundation that comes with living near the water.
However, as many landscapers are beginning to learn, ironwoods are actually quite adaptable. Though well-adapted to the shade, they can survive in sunny locations, and they’re surprisingly drought tolerant once established.
Ironwood Identification: Tips & Tricks
While the ironwood becomes easy to spot at a glance with practice, it can give conflicting clues to novices. It is most likely to be confused with young red maples (Acer rubrum), American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia), or hop hornbeams (Ostrya virginiana).
And honestly, its leaves are not terribly helpful, as they are pretty similar to two of these three species.
The tree’s bark and trunk make for the easiest diagnosis (assuming the fruit aren’t present). You can rule out the hop hornbeam, which has shaggy or scaly bark, rather than the smooth bark ironwoods possess. Beeches have somewhat similar bark and leaves, but the trunk and lower branches of the two look quite different; ironwood trunks are often fluted and “muscular” looking, while beech trunks and branches are essentially round.
Rule out the red maple by looking at the leaf arrangement: Maples have oppositely arranged leaves, while ironwoods have alternately arranged leaves.
The Ironwood: Additional Information
Check out the following resources if we’ve sparked your interest in these interesting trees.
- North Carolina State Extension: A good basic resource on the ironwood tree, with a lot of high-quality photographs.
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Basic information about the species, much of which is presented in an easy-to-reference table.
- Virginia Tech Dendrology: A good source for ID information and commonly confused species.