Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Common Hoptree - Ptelea trifoliata   L.
Members of Rutaceae:
Members of Ptelea with account distribution info or public map:
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Section 6 » Order Sapindales » Family Rutaceae
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DistributionVery widely scattered over the Mountains, Piedmont, and the western half of the Coastal Plain. Absent from nearly all of the northern Coastal Plain, though it could potentially occur in some counties, as it is present in Northampton County and in some southeastern VA counties.

This is a wide-ranging species from southeastern Canada to central FL and west to AZ and UT. Even so, it has a spotty distribution east of OH and AL.
AbundanceInfrequent in the Brushy Mountains of Alexander and Wilkes counties, but locally numerous on some granitic domes there. Rare to locally uncommon in most of the Mountains and adjacent foothills. Generally rare in the Piedmont, away from foothills ranges. Very rare in the Coastal Plain, and presumably absent in far eastern counties. The NCNHP removed the species from its Watch List in 2022.
HabitatThis is a species generally restricted to high pH soils, but in various settings. In the western part of the state it is usually found in rocky woods, outcrop margins, cliffs and bluffs. However, in most of the Piedmont and its Coastal Plain range it occurs along rich streambanks and forested levees, in shade or light shade. It also is found along some montane riversides, especially in areas of rich natural levees.
PhenologyBlooms from April to June, and fruits from June to August.
IdentificationThis is a fairly large deciduous shrub, rarely a small tree, growing to 10-15 feet tall. Nearly every part of the plant is distinct from any other woody plant in the state. It has fairly large alternate leaves that consist of three rounded, entire leaflets, each about 3 inches long. The leaf stalk is quite long, and the leaflets taper gradually to the petiole so that the leaflets are stalkless. The inflorescence consists of a cluster of medium-sized, cream-colored 4- or 5-petaled flowers in leaf axils, followed by very distinct flattened but rounded wafer-like seed pods in a dangling cluster. Though the leaves look a bit like Poison-ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Hoptree has entire leaflets with no stalks to the leaflets. American Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) also is a tall shrub or small tree with three leaflets, but the leaflets are serrated and the flowers (white) and fruits (large bag-like capsules) are considerably different.
Taxonomic CommentsSome references split out this species into a handful of varieties or subspecies, though NatureServe does not. Weakley (2018) considers the nominate variety – P. trifoliata var. trifoliata – the primary one found in the state, whereas P. trifoliata var. mollis is apparently rare in all three provinces.

Other Common Name(s)Wafer-tree, Stinking-ash. Traditionally simply called “Hoptree”, but as there is another species in the western states, named as Western Hoptree, this eastern species needs a modifier name – Common Hoptree.
State RankS3
Global RankG5
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B.A. SorrieRaven Rock SP, steep ledge above Cape Fear River, 2002. HarnettPhoto_natural
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