The hornbeam gets its name from the strength of its timber - horn meaning hard, and beam being the old English word for tree. Historically these trees were Britain’s most prized source of hardwood, used to make tools, coach wheels and gear pegs in traditional windmills.
Native to the south of England, the hornbeam is naturally found in oak woodland and is often coppiced (cut back to ground level to promote growth) or pollarded (top cut-off to promote growth). Traditionally, people pollarded trees for cattle feed or wood. Old pollard stools tell stories of historic fuelwood rights, when hornbeams would have been highly-valued for firewood or producing charcoal. Today the timber is mostly used for furniture and flooring; its well-finished, pale, smooth appearance is often compared to ivory.
The hornbeam is a tree often overlooked in our woodlands due to its similarity in appearance to the beech tree. However, if you look closely you will find a few key differences that tell the species apart. The leaves on a hornbeam are slightly smaller with serrated edges, as opposed to the wavy leaf edges of the beech. In autumn when the beech produces nuts in prickly seed cases, the hornbeam wears distinctive clusters of papery seeds. With buds pressed closely to the twig, as opposed to the beech’s sharply-pointed leaf buds, when winter winds blow the yellow leaves from the hornbeam, the differences between these two trees become clearer.
The hornbeam holds significant wildlife value as a food plant, shelter and roosting site. Like the beech, the hornbeam does not shed all of its leaves in winter, so provides shelter throughout the cold winter months. Further shelter is proffered by its relatively small size, meaning taller trees protect the hornbeam from the worst of the weather. Its lower height also increases diversity of a woodland’s canopy; a woodland with a varied canopy has far more wildlife value than one with similar-sized trees.
The hornbeam produces catkins in spring. Male and female flowers are on separate catkins, but the same tree. Male catkins appear just before the female ones. After being pollinated by the wind, female catkins transform into papery, winged fruits known as samaras, which small birds and mammals feed on throughout the autumn, including winter visitors such as the striking hawfinch. In spring, hornbeam is the food plant for various moth species.
Like many of our treasured native trees, the hornbeam has historically been used in medicine. The bark can be boiled-up and bathed-in to treat sore muscles, and its leaves have been used to stop bleeding and heal wounds. In folklore, hornbeam and other prized hardwoods appear as ladders between worlds, sources of life and wisdom and as the physical forms of supernatural beings.
If you want to go and spend some time with these wonderful trees this winter, head to Avon Wildlife Trust’s Prior’s Wood. Woodlands are often forgotten once the autumn display has finished, but explore amongst the trees in winter and you will find them not as bare as you might imagine. Without the leaves obscuring the view, you can spot over-wintering birds in the branches, and fungi continue to fruit on the forest floor. Enjoy some winter sun as it casts beautiful patterns through the bare branches, and soak up some strength from the hornbeam to power you on through the colder days.
Hornbeam tree leaves (c) Malcolm Storey