Hop hornbeam is a small tree, typically reaching a maximum height of 30 feet with a proportionally short, straight trunk of 1 foot in diameter. The crown is broad and rounded or vase-shaped. Hop hornbeam is a common tree throughout the eastern United States. It occurs in every county in Illinois in a variety of habitats from stream banks to upland woods and dry, rocky slopes and ridges.
Hop hornbeam is sometimes confused with ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana), also known as blue beech. The latter has a very smooth gray trunk that has a "muscular" appearance (hence the name ironwood), whereas hop hornbeam has brownish, grooved, and scaly bark. Nonetheless, the term ironwood is applied to both the hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) and the blue beech (Carpinus caroliniana) in some texts.
The leaves of hop hornbeam are similar to those of ironwood, and also to those of elms. The distinguishing characteristic that separates the elm leaves from the hop hornbeam leaves is the asymmetrical base common in elm leaves. Hop hornbeams do not have leaves with an asymmetrical base.
Hop hornbeam wood is hard and durable. It is used chiefly in the manufacture of tool handles, but also for fence posts and fuel. Hop hornbeam serves well as a landscape tree owing to its tolerance for very dry soils and shade, as well as its ability to live in a stressful urban environment. Native Americans used hop hornbeam to treat toothache and sore muscles, coughs, hemorrhages in the lungs, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and a host of other ailments.