Skip to main content
Quick facts

Common names: hornbeam, common hornbeam, European hornbeam

Scientific name: Carpinus betulus

Family: Betulaceae

Origin: native

Common hornbeam is a deciduous, broadleaf tree which has pale grey bark with vertical markings, and sometimes 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. Mature trees can reach a height of 30m and live for more than 300 years.

Look out for: leaves that have a pleated look and a seed which is a small nut about 3–6mm long, held in a leafy bract with three lobes.

Identified in winter by: distinctive, papery seeds hanging in tiered clusters through autumn. Leaf buds are pressed closely to the twig.

What does hornbeam look like?

Hornbeam leaves

Credit: Deborah Morris / WTML

Leaves

A similar shape to beech leaves – oval with pointed tips. Hornbeam leaves, however, are smaller and more deeply furrowed than beech leaves and have finely toothed edges (whereas beech leaves have wavy edges). They become golden yellow to orange in colour before falling in autumn.

Hornbeam catkins

Credit: Nature Photographers Ltd / WTML

Flowers

Hornbeam is monoecious, meaning male and female catkins are found on the same tree.

Hornbeam seed pods

Credit: FLPA / Alamy Stock Photo

Fruits

After pollination by wind, female catkins develop into papery, green winged fruits, known as samaras.

Not to be confused with:

Common beech (Fagus sylvatica). The hornbeam’s doubly serrated leaf edges help to tell them apart. Beech has wavy edges, not toothed.

Woodland Trust Tree ID App

Trees woods and wildlife

Identify trees with our Tree ID app

Download our free Tree ID app for Android and iPhone to identify the UK's native and non-native trees. It's an A-Z tree guide in your pocket.

Download the app
Did you know?

In the area of Valenciennes in Northern France, it was traditional to lay a hornbeam branch at your sweetheart’s door.

Where to find hornbeam

Native to the south of the UK but widely planted elsewhere, hornbeam is naturally found in oak woodland and is often coppiced or pollarded. Only two species occur in Europe, with the greatest number of the 30–40 species mainly found in East Asia.

Hawfinch feeding on hornbeam seeds

Credit: Robin Chittenden / Alamy Stock Photo

Value to wildlife

Like beech, a hornbeam hedge will keep its leaves all year round, providing shelter, roosting, nesting and foraging opportunities for birds and small mammals. Hornbeam is the food plant for caterpillars of a number of moth species, including the nut tree tussock. Finches and tits and small mammals eat the seeds in autumn.

Mythology and symbolism

Romans used hornbeam to make their chariots because of the strength of the wood.

Did you know?

Hornbeam is the tree of choice if you want to grow a hedge on the ‘stilts’ of its trunks, so the foliage starts several feet above the ground – a feature once seen in the gardens of country estates.

Uses of hornbeam

Hornbeam timber is a pale, creamy white with a flecked grain. It is extremely hard; in fact it has the hardest wood of any tree in Europe. Nowadays, it’s mainly used for furniture, flooring and wood turning, but traditionally the wood was made into ox yokes which were used to join a team of ploughing oxen together. The wooden ‘beam’ would have been attached to their horns which may have contributed to the tree’s name. It’s more likely, however, that the hornbeam is so named due to the hardness of its timber – ‘horn’ means ‘hard’ and ‘beam’ was the name for a tree in old English.

Other traditional uses were butchers' chopping blocks, piano hammers, wood screws, coach wheels and cogs for windmills and water mills. It was also coppiced and pollarded for poles. The wood also burns well and makes good firewood and charcoal.

A tonic made from hornbeam was said to relieve tiredness and exhaustion, and its leaves were used to stop bleeding and heal wounds.

Threats and conservation

Hornbeam is susceptible to fungal diseases, namely Phytophthora. It may also suffer bark-stripping damage by grey squirrels.