Hornbeams: A Handsome Tree

The hornbeam grows as a native tree in the oak woodlands of southern England and is noted for its compact stature and its magnificent yellow and red-gold autumn colours.

As our climate became warmer after the last Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago. The British Isles were colonised by forest trees which spread across from the Continent. The pollen record shows that the hornbeam was a relative latecomer, arriving about 5000 years ago, whereas the oak was already widespread 2500 years earlier.

Since the hornbeam settled here, the climate has become wetter and cooler, pushing the hornbeam southwards until today it is common only in south-eastern England. From this area its natural range extends northwards and west to the Welsh border; elsewhere it has been introduced. It is a common forest tree in central Europe and the British distribution represents the western tip of its range.


The fluted trunk, covered in smooth pale grey bark, divides into a large number of limbs which sweep upwards to produce a densely branched symmetrical crown. The winter buds are 5-10cm (2-4in) long, pale brown and set alternately along the slender twigs. The buds are closely pressed against the twig-‘like a crouching mouse’, in one writer’s apt description.

Flowers, fruits and leaves Flowering starts in April shortly before the leaves appear. Male and female catkins, borne on the same tree, appear towards the tips of the delicate twigs. The male catkins expand to form a hanging chain of overlapping yellow-green bracts. Pollen is shed from a cluster of orange anthers that are tucked under each bract.

The female catkins consist of a loose cluster of leafy green bracts with their tips curled upwards. Under each bract is a pair of smaller bracteoles which protect the red stigmas that catch the pollen grains drifting in the air.

Shortly after the catkins have fully expanded, the bright yellow-green young leaves push their way out of a sheath of pinkish bud scales and slowly unfurl like a fan. The unfolded leaves are oval in shape with a conspicuously toothed margin. The upper surface is slightly creased along the lines of the parallel veins.

After fertilisation, a pair of nutlets are formed in shallow cups, and each bracteole expands to form a papery wing with three lobes, the middle one being the longest. Later in summer this wing acts as a sail, catching the wind and steering the seed some distance from the parent tree.

The autumn foliage undergoes a vivid colour change through various shades of yellow to a rich ruddy gold before falling. On young hornbeam trees and hedges the leaves become shrivelled and rusty brown but, as in the beech, they may stay on the tree throughout winter.

The small, ribbed nutlets, each enclosing a single seed, provide a bountiful supply of food for birds and mammals. The hawfinch in particular devours hornbeam seeds, and interestingly. They both share a similar range in this country. Squirrels too eat the seeds, either climbing the trees to get them or seeking them out on the forest floor. The seeds that escape being eaten lie dormant for 18 months or so before germinating.

Beech look-alike

The hornbeam is frequently confused with the beech, and they are indeed similar in general appearance. But they can easily be distinguished at any time of the year. First, the winter buds of hornbeam are shorter and fatter than those of the beech. They also hug the twig closely whereas in the beech the buds are set at an angle and point away from the twig.

Secondly, the leaves, while similar in shape, can be seen to differ at close range. Those of hornbeam have sharply toothed edges whereas beech leaves have smooth margins. Hornbeam leaves feel rather rough to the touch. Contrasting with the smooth, polished feel of beech foliage; and during summer beech foliage turns a darker shade of green.

Tough wood

The name of the tree probably derives from the nature of the wood, which is hard like horn. Alternatively, some say it refers to the wooden yokes, often made of this wood, which join a team of ploughing oxen together, and are attached to the horns – hence hornbeam.

The hornbeam has the hardest wood of any tree in Europe. It is heavy, fine-grained, and creamy yellow in colour. Craftsmen have made little use of it for furniture or cabinet-making because it is too hard: their tools were blunted so quickly that much time was wasted in resharpening them. But it has been greatly used in musical instruments, particularly for the hammers of piano keys, and for heavy-duty purposes, such as cogs and pulleys.

Although the wood is extremely tough it burns well. Before coal became the major source of energy hornbeams in woods near London, such as Epping Forest, were regularly coppiced and pollarded to provide fire wood and charcoal to fuel the city’s furnaces.

Aspen Trees

One of our less familiar native trees, the aspen is sometimes called the quaking aspen because its leaves tremble in the slightest breeze – a feature that has been the source of much folklore, all associating this pretty tree with evil and gossip.

Although the aspen is not one of our well known native trees, it occurs throughout the British Isles, being more common in the north and west of the country than in the south. Valleys and hillsides are typical habitats for this tree, though it sometimes grows in hedgerows and copses, and it is quite often seen in open oakwoods.

Outside Britain the aspen is found as far north as Iceland, Norway and northern USSR, south to Sicily, Greece and North Africa, and east to Japan.

Trembling poplar

The aspen is a species of poplar, its Latin name of Popidus tremula reflecting the fact that its leaves quiver in the slightest breeze. Like other poplars, the aspen is a fast-growing tree, reaching a maximum height of about 20m (65ft). When young it has an open conical crown, which becomes broader with age.

The bole often leans to one side and suckers are freely produced around the base, so that single trees may eventually form dense thickets. The bark is grey-green and smooth, with darker oval depressions.

The shape and size of the leaves vary according to whether they come from the main part of the tree or from the suckers. Normal leaves have a blade about 3-7cm (1-3in) long and at least as broad as that, with shallow rounded teeth. The stalk is 4-6cm (1-1/2-2-1/2in) long and strongly flattened in such a way that the slightest breeze causes the leaf to flutter vigorously. Leaves borne on suckering shoots may be much larger-up to 15cm (6in) long-and are oval in shape, with more prominent teeth. Their stalks are also much shorter.

Both types of leaf are the same colour: copper-brown when they first emerge in the spring, gradually becoming grey-green or green on the upper surface and paler underneath. The leaf-stalks are much paler, being yellowish or almost white in colour. In late October, the leaves turn pure yellow and provide an attractive display in some years. However, aspens in other countries seem to have much better autumn colours than ours.

Spring catkins

The aspen flowers in March, before the leaves appear, bearing separate male and female catkins on separate trees-as do other poplar trees. The male catkins are usually borne in great numbers and are quite thick. 4-8cm (1-½ – 3in) long and greyish-brown, although they can appear yellowish when releasing pollen.

The catkins produce no scent or nectar and so are not visited by potential pollinating insects. Instead, pollination is carried out by the wind. After pollination the male catkins turn brown and soon drop off.

The female catkins are slimmer than the males and greenish with grey hairs and reddish bracts. They grow to about 4-6cm (1-½ – 24in) long and bear purple stigmas. After pollination they may lengthen and can be as long as 12cm (5in) by the time the seeds are fully ripe, which is in June. At this stage the female catkins appear whitish and release white woolly seeds. The seeds can often be seen carpeting the ground around female trees.

Versatile timber

The timber of aspen, and indeed of other poplars, is not of particularly good quality, but it has been put to a number of different uses. The most important of these are the construction of various types of boxes and the production of wood pulp. The wood is also used for making matches and, in the past, for arrows. Commercially, aspens and other poplars have the advantage over other trees of growing very rapidly in the right conditions.

Evil associations

The aspen’s almost constant leaf movement has been the source of much local folklore and legends throughout the range of the tree’s distribution. Many have a biblical basis. In Wales it was said that the aspen was used to make the Cross and. For this reason, its leaves would never rest. In some areas of Scotland the aspen was regarded as evil because it was the only tree not to have bowed during Jesus’ procession to the Crucifixion. As a result, people used to avoid using the wood. Indeed, feeling was so strong against the aspen in Scotland that some people used to throw stones at it.

There are similar legends elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, Jesus is said to have cursed the aspen because it would not acknowledge Him and. In parts of Russia, it was known as the tree of Judas.

The movement of the aspen’s leaves seems to have led to associations with the sound of gossip and loose tongues, particularly (and rather chauvinistically) with the tongues of women. This association is found in parts of Scotland, where the tree is known as ‘old wives’ tongues’. In parts of Berkshire it was referred to as ‘woman’s tongue’ and the Welsh name for the aspen, ‘coed tafod merched’, also refers to the same image, as does the Manx name of ‘chengey ny mraane’.

Nowadays, it seems strange that such an attractive and pleasing tree should, in the past, have been the subject of so many evil associations and unpleasant stories. Without these, the aspen might perhaps have been more widely planted than it has been.

14. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Featured Articles, Woodlands | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Hornbeams: A Handsome Tree


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