17 Sep What Tree? Hornbeam
Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus)
This month we are revisiting a tree that was featured as the very first ‘What Tree?’ when Tree Frontiers was founded in 2010. It’s great to revisit this species as the hornbeam is a particular favourite of both Nick and Steve’s and is a fantastic all-round native tree.
The hornbeam is native to the UK, originating from southern Britain, where it thrives in deciduous woodlands. This is a slow growing species which can live for more than 200 years and is often associated with Ancient Semi-Natural Woodland (ASNW), although it can also be found amongst agricultural land generally within hedgerows. Hornbeams elsewhere within the UK are most likely planted and this species is often found in urban green space such as public parks, business centres and car parks.
The common name is believed to derive from ‘horn’ meaning hard and ‘beam’ which was the old English noun for a tree.
These woodland trees were historically managed through either coppicing or pollarding, for a sustainable source of both timber and livestock fodder and historians have confirmed that Romans utilised the timber of this tree to build their chariots. This was primarily due to the strength and durability of the wood. The use of the wood for its strength was echoed in early agriculture with yokes for ploughs and other livestock drawn tools being made of the timber.
This trait of durability has extended into modern carpentry with timber now commonly used for furniture making. The unique paleness of the wood also makes it a popular choice amongst wood turners.
Historically, the bark of the tree was boiled and used for bathing to treat muscle soreness and there are cases in folklore that refer to the timber of hornbeam as a ladder between worlds or manifesting as physical forms of supernatural beings.
Appearance and Identification
Although mature trees can reach a height of over 25 metres this species is considered a small to medium sized tree. The trunk is often short and fluted with large lateral limbs that provide a low and dense spreading canopy leading to a broad domed crown. The dense foliage means that the tree is ideal to support a range of habitats, but particularly suitable for nesting birds. This is often why hornbeams are so popular as a hedging species.
Leaves are alternate and have a similar shape to that of common beech (Fagus sylvatica), oval in shape with pointed tips. However, the leaves are generally smaller, furrowed with finely toothed edges and young leaves can have a reddish/burgundy tinge to them. During autumn they become a distinct gold-orange and can persist on the tree during winter, much the same as beech.
Both male and female catkins are found on the same tree (referred to as monoecious) and seeds hang in tiered clusters throughout autumn and are often a distinguishable feature from other native deciduous trees. These tiered clusters of seeds are a common food source for the declining Hawfinch, which is a rarely seen bird, albeit the largest of the UK finch population.
For identification in winter, look for grey-brown twigs and long slender buds which are a similar shape to that of common beech, except they are often not as long or as sharply pointed, with slightly curved tips. The trunk is often identified by its pale bark with vertical markings, which develops into twisted ridges/fissures in maturity, and as described above is usually fluted.
Propagation and Control
This species is not only shade tolerant but is also frost resistant. These traits mean it thrives when in competition with other native deciduous trees, which is why it is such an ideal woodland or hedging species. Contrary to the ideal habitat, this species is not very tolerant of exposed locations.
The most suitable soil conditions are moist and nutrient rich but although they can grow on alkaline soils, if these are particularly dry, the tree may struggle to adequately establish.
The hornbeam is relatively resilient to common pests and diseases already found throughout the UK. However, it is susceptible to damage from squirrels stripping the bark from either the stem or lower limbs of the canopy.
Source and Reference Materials
Information detailed in this post has been obtained from the author’s own knowledge and photographic library where possible. Additional source of information and photographs include:
More, D & White, J. (2013). Illustrated trees of Britain and Europe. Domino.
Van den Berk, B.V. (2004). Van den Berk on Trees. Van den Berk Nurseries.