Trees & Shrubs – The Hornbeam – Carpinus betulus

Trees & Shrubs – The Hornbeam – Carpinus betulus

Hornbeams are relatively small hardwood trees in the genus Carpinus. Though some botanists grouped them with the hazels (Corylus) and hop-hornbeams (Ostrya) in a segregated family, Corylaceae, modern botanists place the hornbeams in the birch subfamily Coryloideae. The 30–40 species occur across much of the north temperate regions.

The common English name “hornbeam” derives from the hardness of the woods (likened to horn) and the Old English “beam”, a tree (cognate with German “Baum“).

The botanic name for the genus, Carpinus, is the original Latin name for the European species.

Carpinus betulus L. — European hornbeam – widespread across much of Europe; Turkey, Iran, Caucasus is the Hornbeam found widespread in London parks gardens and woodlands.

Traditionally planted and managed using coppicing and pollarding for charcoal. Highgate woods and wooded areas in and around old London were extensively planted with Hornbeam in previous centuries, the Hornbeam is most common in the South East of England.

The Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus).

hornbeam-summer-300x300 Trees & Shrubs - The Hornbeam - Carpinus betulus
The Hornbeam tree in summer
hornbeam-winter-300x300 Trees & Shrubs - The Hornbeam - Carpinus betulus
the same Hornbeam tree in winter

The 19th century English horticulturalist Edward Step said this about the Hornbeam in his Wayside and Woodland Trees.

The Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). The Hornbeam is frequently passed by as a Beech, to which it has a very close superficial likeness, but a comparison of leaves, flowers, or bole would at once make the differences obvious. It is usually found in similar situations to the Beech, though it does not ascend so far up the hills as that species.

hornbeam-bole-trunk Trees & Shrubs - The Hornbeam - Carpinus betulus
the bole or trunk of the Hornbeam tree

The Trunk. On dry, poor soils it does not attain its full proportions and may only be classed as a small tree; but when growing on low ground, in rich loam or good clay, it reaches a height of seventy feet, with a girth of ten feet.

If two measurements of the bole’s diameter be taken at right angles to each other, they will be found to differ greatly. A section of the trunk will not show a circular outline, but rather an ellipse, the bole appearing to have been flattened on two sides. It is coated with a smooth grey bark, usually spotted with white.

hornbeam-leaf Trees & Shrubs - The Hornbeam - Carpinus betulus
the leaf of the hornbeam tree

The leaves are less symmetrical than those of Beech, and are broader towards the base. They are of rougher texture, hairy on the underside, and their edges are doubly toothed. In autumn they turn yellow, then to ruddy gold, but a few days later they have settled into the rusty hue they retain throughout the winter, in those cases where they remain on the tree until spring.

The wood is exceedingly tough, and not to be worked up with ease, but it is considered to make admirable fuel. Evelyn says, “It burns like a candle.”

There are those who say that the name Hornbeam has reference to the tough or hornlike character of its beams; others declare that in the days when bullocks were yoked to the plough the yoke was made of this wood, as being fitted by its toughness to stand the strain, and as it was attached to the horns, it became the horn-beam. A third theory is that the name was derived from Ornus, the Manna-ash, with which early botanists confused it, but with all respect to the authority of Dr. Prior, who favours it, we prefer to stand on the first suggestion, with old John Gerarde, who says (“Herball,” 1633):

“In time it waxeth so hard that the toughnesse and hardnesse of it may be rather compared to horn than unto wood, and therefore it was called Hornbeam or hardbeam.”

The carpenter is not pleased who has hornbeam to work up, for his tools lose their edge far too quickly for his labour to be profitable. Evelyn tells us that it was called by some the Horse-beech, from the resemblance of the leaves.

The two kinds of catkins are similar and cylindrical, but whilst the male is pendulous from the beginning, the female is erect until after the formation of the fruit, when it gradually assumes the hanging position. The bracts of the male are oval, with sharp tips, each containing an uncertain (3-12) number of stamens. In the female the bracts fall early, but their place is taken by three-lobed bracteoles, which enlarge after flowering, and become an inch or an inch and a half long. A single flower occupies each bracteole, consisting of a two-celled ovary and two styles. Only one cell develops, so that the hard green fruit contains but one seed. The appearance of these fruits in autumn as they hang in a spray from the underside of the branches is quite distinct from those of any other of our native trees.

hornbeam-fruits Trees & Shrubs - The Hornbeam - Carpinus betulus
the fruit of the Hornbeam tree

The Hornbeam’s title to be considered indigenous has had some doubts thrown upon it because there are some records of specimens having been introduced during the fifteenth century, but that is not sufficient ground upon which to deny nationality. We have known persons to bring home from distant parts as treasures wild plants and ferns that were growing within a mile of their own homes. It appears to be a real native of the southern and midland counties of England, and of Wales. A line drawn across the map from North Wales to Norfolk roughly marks the limit; north of that line the Hornbeam appears to have been planted, as also in Ireland.

WAYSIDE AND WOODLAND TREES A Pocket Guide to the British Sylva. By EDWARD STEP, F.L.S. With 175 Plates from Water-colour Drawings by MABEL E. STEP and Photographs by HENRY IRVING and the Author.



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