by John Brouwer
Ironwood, also know as hop hornbean, is named for its dense and tough wood. As such it was used for wheels, shafts, machinery parts, farm vehicles and parts, sled runners, canes, tool handles, millets, and all furniture where strength and durability was required.
Today it is no longer a valuable lumber tree as it is too small for efficient mechanical harvesting.
Ironwood is a generic name applied to various strong and dense tree species in many regions of the world. To be accurate botanists have to refer to the scientific name so they can distinguish the particular species. Within our region iron wood refers to ostrya virginiana.
Iron wood is a small tree, up to 50 feet, which grows in the shade of the forest under storey. Like other members of this birch family its bark separates into strips which peel away from the tree. Its leaves turn a dull yellow in the fall. Ironwood seeds grow inside bunches of papery pods which fall from the tree in late winter.
Ironwood catkins and seeds provide food for red squirrels, ruffed grouse, purple finch, and grosbeak.
Ironwood is so dense it will not float in water. Because of its density, ironwood is rot-resistant and was used for fence posts and fencing. A sustainable and environmentally responsible lumber industry would utilize the natural resistance of trees like ironwood for exterior applications instead of the toxic-soaked pressure-treated lumber used in decks and fencing.
The bark of ironwood has been used to extract astringents which were used to treat sore muscles. Essential oils refined from the tree were used by native Americans to treat toothaches. Some sources suggest the oils were an ingredient in the treatment of more serious ailments including cancers
Because ironwood is shade-tolerant it lends itself to under planting within Carolinian woodlands. As such it provides diversity of height and promotes efficient use of available sunlight.
The literature suggests that ironwood has suffered from landscape architects' love affair with all things European. In the open, ironwood becomes a pyramidal small tree with a pleasing form and few insect and disease problems. Because of its strength it is able to withstand storms and ice and snow accumulations. It would appear to be an ideal street tree to replace the thousands of invasive Norway maples currently lining the streets of most Ontario cities. It certainly is an excellent candidate for yards having constrained space.