This blog will focus on the versatile Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus); a native broadleaf. It has soft, bright green, oval-shaped leaves that are deeply creased; although they are similar to beech leaves, they are much smaller, have a pointed tip and have a fine-toothed edge (beech have wavy edges and rounded tips). Its bark is initially smooth and a pale grey colour but becomes more fissured as it matures; its colour deepens into a greyish-purple, accentuating a beautifully distinct vertical diamond pattern. Hornbeam is also monoecious, meaning both male and female cones are found on the same tree. Long, drooping male catkins develop in the autumn but don’t mature and open until the spring; female catkins are shorter and develop in spring. Once pollinated by wind, the female catkins develop into seeds; two leaf-like ‘wings’ develop around each fruit, creating a dense cluster of seeds hanging down.
Hornbeam is native to the UK, as well as Central and Eastern Europe; it is truly native to Southern and South-Eastern parts of England. Interesting fact: there are 43 different Carpinus species worldwide, with most species native to China, Japan and USA; there are only two that are native to Europe (C. betulus and C. orientalis). Click on this link to explore all the different species on the Kew – Plants of the World Online website; there are some amazing species out there!
Although typically medium-sized trees, hornbeam can reach heights of up to 30m and can have a lifespan of more than 300 years. Hornbeam does well in a variety of soils, from wet heavy clay to dry, light sandy soils; it can adapt in acid to alkaline conditions, yet struggles on chalky, shallow soils. It can also adapt to an assortment of climate conditions, as it is very hardy, particularly to the cold; where sites are just a bit too wet and cold for species such as beech or oak, hornbeam is a suitable substitute. Yet, the best growing conditions are in warmer areas or regions, in moderately fertile and damp soil. Hornbeam is one of few species that is a natural shade-bearing tree; it doesn’t have a crown as dense as beech, but casts a more dappled light below it, allowing natural regeneration of its own and other species to thrive. When designing a woodland on wetter ground, Hornbeam could and should be considered in the mix with other suitable species, such as Alder and Willow.