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Common hornbeam

The original maze at Hampton Court was probably formed of hornbeam hedges before being replaced with yew and holly. Hornbeam does make a good hedge, as it is easy to maintain, with dense foliage, some of which is retained over winter, albeit dead.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Carpinus betulus
  • Family: Betulaceae
  • Place of origin: Asia Minor and Europe
  • Conservation status: common
  • Date planted: c. 1870s
  • Height: 20.2 m

About Kew's common hornbeams

We have over 50 individual hornbeam trees in the Living collections, reflecting their status as an important native species. You can also see them planted in an historic fashion near the Queen's Garden, where a 'boscage' (raised hedge) of hornbeam is planted on the eastern approach to a wrought iron rotunda. This French concept allowed ladies to walk in shade during the heat of the day.

Take a closer look

  • Hornbeam is often mistaken for beech. But you can tell them apart by their leaves. Those of the beech have smooth edges, while the hornbeam's are sharply serrated. The buds, which appear in winter, are also a give-away. The hornbeam's are flush to the branch. Beech buds are longer and slimmer and point out at an angle.
  • The trunk of the hornebeam is also a good indicator of its identity. It tends to have a twisted fluted shape with deep splits, as if it has been under enormous pressure.

Tree biology

Hornbeams are extremely tolerant to shade which means they can happily live in dense forests like Epping, where thousands grow alongside oak, beech, birch and holly trees. They are not found more than 600 m above sea level. The fruit is a pair of ‘nutlets’ in shallow cups attached to a papery, three-pointed 'wing'. During late summer, this wing acts as a sail to carry the seeds away from the parent plant.

Cultivation and uses

The hornbeam's incredibly hard wood burns well and before coal was widely available, hornbeam woods were coppiced and pollarded (cut back to encourage new growth), providing firewood and charcoal for furnaces. It is the hardest timber of any European tree and will blunt all but the best tools. It is used for the hammers of piano keys, for cogs and pulleys, and has also made fine butcher's chopping blocks, skittles and gun butts. Today it is more often planted as hedging or in parks.