Carpinus betulus common hornbeam
Poor old hornbeam is often mistaken for beech, which it resembles on several fronts. There are a couple of identifying features that enable you to tell them apart easily, though, most notably the catkins in spring and the hop-like fruits in autumn and winter. It is a more robust-looking tree too, with more determinedly corrugated leaves, and what could pass for rippling muscles below the bark surface. And it is not just an impression of strength: hornbeam has the toughest wood of all and was long commonly known as ‘iron wood’, used to make cogs, axles and spokes before iron was readily available. In gardens it is usually trimmed and shaped into smart hedges.
The pale-grey bark has vertical markings and the trunk sometimes develops a twist and muscular ridges as the tree ages. On the twigs buds lie flat against the stems.
Long, dangling catkins form on the tree in spring. These are the male catkins. Female catkins form on the same tree but are smaller and less noticeable.
Like beech leaves but smaller and with a deeper groove. A beautiful fresh green in spring, they turn yellow then soft brown in autumn, and on small trees or hedges won’t drop until spring.
Fruits, or samaras, are short chains of three winged nuts that bunch together to look like hops, and hang in the tree long after leaves fall.
A tall and broad woodland tree, handsome and well-balanced. The lower branches will droop as the tree grows and mature specimens make wonderful climbing trees.
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The hornbeam is most often found in old woodland, where it may be coppiced for its wood. 1