Hornbeam is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to the south of the UK, but widely planted elsewhere. It can be found easily throughout Exeter as both trees and hedges. One of the best specimens can be found in the St Thomas pleasure grounds of Exeter. It can sometimes be confused with Common beech from a distance, but when you get close up there are striking differences.
Hornbeam trees are deciduous and small to medium-sized reaching heights of up 32 metres. The leaves are alternate and simple with a serrated margin. The size of the leaves vary from 3–10 cm in length and the flowers are wind-pollinated. The flowers are pendulous catkins, produced in the spring time. The male and female flowers are on separate catkins, but on the same tree (monoecious). The fruit is a small nut about 3–6 mm long, held in a leafy bract. This bract may be simple oval or trilobed, and is slightly asymmetrical. The asymmetry of the seed wing makes it spin as it falls, improving the dispersal. of the small seeds. There are typically 10–30 seeds on each seed catkin. The shape of the wing is important in the identification of different hornbeam species.
The long dangling male catkins are usually seen in March
During summer the samaras are bright green and during autumn they turn brown and are blown by the wind
The bark is pale grey with vertical markings, sometimes with a short, twisted trunk, which develops ridges with age. The twigs are brown-grey and slightly hairy and the leaf buds are similar to beech only shorter, and slightly curved at the tips. In good conditions Hornbeam can live for more than 300 years.
The buds are sharp pointed and are green-brown in colour.
The young leaves are bright green. As they mature they become darker and are more oval, toothed and with pointed tips.
The leaves are oval, toothed and with pointed tips. Often confused with Common beech,but the leaves are slightly smaller and more deeply furrowed than Common beech leaves. During the autumn the leaves turn a golden yellow to orange and can really help brighten up any park or green space.
The canopy is not as dense as Common beech and allows more light onto the ground
Quite often the leaves of the younger trees / shrubs remain throughout the winter. This is called "Marcescence"
It is naturally found in oak woodland, and is often coppiced or pollarded. There are only two species which occur in Europe, whereas in East Asia there are 30-40 species. The leaves of Hornbeam are a key food source for many caterpillars, including the nut tree tussock. Many small birds such as finches and tits eat the seeds in autumn as well as small mammals. The name Hornbeam comes from the old English of Hard (Horn) and Beam (Tree). The timber is a pale creamy white with a flecked grain. Years ago it was used to make ox-yokes (a wooden beam fitted across the shoulders of an ox to enable it to pull a cart), butchers' chopping blocks and cogs for windmills and water mills. It was also coppiced and pollarded for poles.