Hornbeam is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to the south of the UK, but widely planted elsewhere.
Common name: hornbeam
Scientific name: Carpinus betulus
UK provenance: native
Interesting fact: the name hornbeam comes from the hardness of its timber – ‘horn’ means ‘hard’ and ‘beam’ was the name for a tree in old English.
What does hornbeam look like?
Overview: often confused with common beech, the bark is pale grey with vertical markings, sometimes with a short, twisted trunk, which develops ridges with age. The twigs are brown-grey and slightly hairy and the leaf buds are similar to beech only shorter, and slightly curved at the tips. Mature trees can reach a height of 30m and live for more than 300 years.
Leaves: a similar shape to beech leaves – oval, toothed and with pointed tips. Hornbeam leaves, however, are smaller and more deeply furrowed than beech leaves. They become golden yellow to orange before falling in autumn.
Flowers: hornbeam is monoecious, meaning male and female catkins are found on the same tree.
Fruits: after pollination by wind, female catkins develop into papery, green winged fruits, known as samaras.
Look out for: leaves have a pleated look and the seed is a small nut about 3-6 mm long, held in a leafy bract with three lobes.
Could be confused with: beech (Fagus sylvatica). The doubly serrated leaf edges tells them apart.
Identified in winter by: distinctive papery seeds hang in tiered clusters through autumn. Leaf buds are pressed closely to the twig.
Where to find hornbeam
It is naturally found in oak woodland, and is often coppiced or pollarded. Only two species occur in Europe, the greatest number of the 30-40 species can be found in east Asia.
Value to wildlife
Like beech, a hornbeam hedge will keep its leaves all year round, providing shelter, roosting, nesting and foraging opportunities for birds and small mammals.
Hornbeam is the food plant for caterpillars of a number of moth species, including the nut tree tussock. Finches and tits and small mammals eat the seeds in autumn.
Mythology and symbolism
A tonic made from hornbeam was said to relieve tiredness and exhaustion, and its leaves were used to stop bleeding and heal wounds.
How we use hornbeam
Hornbeam timber is a pale creamy white with a flecked grain. It is extremely hard and strong, and so is mainly used for furniture and flooring. Traditional used for the wood included ox-yokes (a wooden beam fitted across the shoulders of an ox to enable it to pull a cart), butchers’ chopping blocks and cogs for windmills and water mills. It was also coppiced and pollarded for poles.
Hornbeam burns well and makes good firewood and charcoal.
Hornbeam has been found to be susceptible to fungal diseases, namely Phytophthora. It may also suffer bark stripping damage by grey squirrels.