Prince of trees

The distinctive leaves of hornbeam.
The distinctive leaves of hornbeam.
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If the oak is king of the forest, and beech is the queen, where does that leave the hornbeam?

It has to be a prince, at least; perhaps even heir to the throne of Britain’s mightiest trees. It certainly deserves more recognition than it receives because, as hedge in particular, it is a stunning plant.

Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is a deciduous broadleaf tree native to the south of the UK, and it gets its common name from the hardness of its timber – ‘horn’ means ‘hard’ and ‘beam’ was tree in old English.

Often confused with common beech, the bark is pale grey with vertical markings, sometimes with a short, twisted trunk, which develops ridges with age. Mature trees can reach a height of 30m and live for more than 300 years.

The leaves are similar in shape to beech leaves but they are smaller and more deeply furrowed and become golden yellow to orange before falling in autumn. A hornbeam hedge will keep its leaves all year round, providing shelter, roosting, nesting and foraging opportunities for birds and small mammals.

The lovely green catkins appear in late spring and eventually turn to clusters of winged fruit in autumn, providing valuable food for many species of wildlife.

So why do so many people choose beech for a hedge rather than hornbeam? It is a classy plant, solid, dependable, attractive and it provides excellent timber, notably for use in furniture and for butchers’ chopping blocks. Unfortunately, grey squirrels also like its bark and they can cause considerable damage.

Hornbeam can tolerate most soils and situations, including heavy, wet soils, and it’s often found living quite happily in frost pockets.

All it needs to form a dense yet accommodating hedge is to prepare the site well (remove all weeds and then incorporate heaps of organic material, such as old compost or well-rotted manure), then place plants a foot apart.

Give them a dose of slow-release fertiliser, firm them in well, and water thoroughly. Top off with a mulch to keep in the moisture and to keep out the weeds.

Growth won’t be speedy, but once established, hornbeam can live for centuries.