Hornbeam Trees

Reviewed by Sally Painter
200 year old Hornbeam tree

The Hornbeam tree is a handsome specimen with a pleasant shape. A member of the genus Carpinus, the Hornbeam is one of the world's most popular ornamental landscaping trees. It is a common street tree in major metropolitan areas, but is also planted in parks and suburban spreads to add beauty and charm. Children love Hornbeam trees for their dense, low branches that are easy to climb.

Appearance of the Tree

The Hornbeam is hearty, but not very stately. The small tree is often categorized as a shrub and rarely grows taller than 30 feet. Adding to its stubby appearance is its wide canopy which can spread to 20 feet.

Other notable characteristics of the slow-growing Hornbeam include:

  • Bark: Young trees feature smooth gray bark with light furrows. Mature trees sport a dark gray bark and develop deep furrow s and ridges.
  • Leaves: Measuring about three inches long, the Hornbeam's leaves are elliptical and heavily veined with pointed tips. They resemble a wedge with serrated edges. The top of the leaves are deep green while the undersides are pale green. In the fall, the leaves turn bright red, scarlet and orange. In winter, brown leaves occasionally hang from the tree.
Hornbeam leaves
  • Flowers: The Hornbeam features both male and female blooms. The former are yellowish catkins that measure about five centimeters long, while the latter are green catkins that grow to about two centimeters.
  • Fruit: The Hornbeam's small nut resides in catkins which are attached to a leaves with three lobes.
Backlit hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) nuts

Another distinguishing characteristic of the Hornbeam tree is its short, twisted trunk.

Hornbeam Tree Types

There are between 30 and 40 different types of Hornbeam trees growing throughout the world, though the most popular are:

  • Japanese Hornbeam: The vase-shaped tree sports long, narrow leaves that are dark green in the summer, but turn yellow in the fall. The Japanese Hornbeam is shorter than its cousins, though its limbs are a bit more flexible and its root system is not destructive. The tree is typically found in urban areas, as its light leaves are easily swept up and don't clog storm drains. Because of its small stature the trees can grow freely in cities without interfering with power lines. In some cases, the Japanese Hornbeam can be pruned to form a bonsai.
  • American Hornbeam: Described as a perennial tree, the American Hornbeam features tiny, inconspicuous orange flowers and dense green foliage. While the tree grows very slowly, it can reach heights to nearly 30 feet. The tree also sports brown seeds, but they don't serve a useful purpose beyond being food for birds.
American Hornbeam Tree
  • European Hornbeam: The shallow rooted tree features a series of low branches and attractive green leaves. The European version of the Hornbeam is also cultivated as a shrub and responds well to pruning. Landscapers love this type of Hornbeam because it is easy to plant and its ability to thrive as a hedge or property border is second to none.
Carpinus betulus (European or common hornbeam)

The majority of Hornbeam tree types are low maintenance. They don't require much care beyond regular watering, though pruning upkeep is required if you trim the tree into a decorative shape.

The Many Looks of the Hornbeam Tree

Yellow Autumn Hornbeam Leaves
Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) Fruits
Hornbeam tree bark
Hornbeam hedge
Japanese Hornbeam
Untrimmed Hornbeam hedge around garden
Bonsai Hornbeam in Japanese garden
old hornbeam hedges in winter

Where the Hornbeam Grows

The hearty Hornbeam is capable of surviving in a number of different environments, but thrives in Asia, Europe and North America. In the United States the tree prospers in:

  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Iowa
  • Wisconsin
  • Texas
  • Georgia
  • Missouri
  • Arkansas
  • Oklahoma

The tree prefers deep, fertile, moist, acidic soil that is well-drained. It also grows best in partial to full sunlight.

Popular Uses

Hornbeams feature extremely durable wood. This very hard timber is the reason the tree has been given the nicknames "Ironwood" and "Musclewood."

The pale white wood is close-grained, strong, heavy and rarely splits or cracks. It is often used to make the following:

  • Mallet heads
  • Tool handles
  • Levers
  • Bowls
  • Dishes
  • Pianos
  • Carving boards
  • Coach wheels
  • Flooring
  • Chess pieces
  • Windmills

The wood can also be dried and used for decorative pieces such as frames and plaques.

Interesting Facts

The name Hornbeam comes from the Old English word "horn" which means "tough" and the "beam" which translates to "tree."

While many dismiss the Hornbeam as being exclusively an ornamental specimen with little use beyond wood cultivation, wild animals disagree. The following creatures are extremely fond of the tree's seeds, buds, and flowers which they consume to stay alive:

  • Songbirds
  • Ruffed grouse
  • Ring-necked pheasants
  • Turkey
  • Fox
  • Gray squirrels

In addition, beavers and white-tailed deer regularly devour the tree's leaves, twigs, and larger stems.

European robin on Hornbeam branch

Hornbeam Diseases

While its name indicates its toughness, the Hornbeam is still susceptible to a few diseases, including:

  • Leaf Spot: Symptoms include discoloration of the leaves and premature drop.
  • Cankers: The fungal disease causes irregular-shaped spores to grow and ooze. The resin can infect branches and kill the entire tree if left untreated.
  • Powdery Mildew: The white mold attacks the tree's leaves and the powdery growth can spread to twigs in severe cases.

While the Hornbeam is preyed upon by the above diseases, fortunately, it does not suffer many attacks from pests.

Hornbeam Care

Early spring is the ideal time to plant Hornbeams on your property, especially if you are using the specimens to create a hedge. Other tips to consider before adding the tree to your landscape include:

  • Choose a site that offers access to sun exposure. Hornbeams grow best in full or partial sunlight.
  • Do not plant the tree in a flood zone. The Hornbeam thrives in well-draining soil and should not be made to stand in excessively moist dirt.
  • Decide whether you are going to plant a free-standing tree or whether you want to form a hedge from multiple Hornbeams. If you choose the latter you will need to plant the trees about one to four feet apart from one another, depending on how often you plan to prune the trees.
Trimming Hornbeam hedge with clippers

Finally, depending on the type of Hornbeam you plant, the specimen can be trimmed into topiary. However, if you choose to go this route, you will need to be very diligent with maintenance, as the tree branches naturally grow in a haphazard fashion.

Versatile Hornbeam Trees

The Hornbeam tree is a verstile ornamental choice for different landscape needs. You can plant a Hornbeam tree as a single tree, several to create a hedge or a topiary.

Hornbeam Trees