In his marvellous book “Ancient Woodland” (new edition 2003) Oliver Rackham says “Hornbeam is the least documented of common trees…..It is a poor timber tree; it produces no nuts, no fibre, no fodder except for deer; it does nothing that other species will not do as well” Perhaps it is time to look again at this tree, unfamiliar to many, yet a major part of many woodlands particularly in Hertfordshire and Essex.
Hatfield Forest is home to magical old hornbeam coppice woods, broad of girth, their distinctive twisted trunks stretching outwards and upwards. At dawn or dusk there is no finer feeling than walking through the dappled sunlight here.
Hornbeam is one of our native trees, it colonized the tundra left after the last Ice Age (approx.11,000 BC) together with holly, ash, beech and maple, preceded chronologically by birch, aspen, sallow; pine and hazel; alder and oak; lime and elm. It is now confined to Southern and Eastern England, most notably in S. Essex and S.E. Herts where it occupies at least half of the ancient woods and wood pastures. (Rackham Ancient Woodlands 2003).
Why Hornbeam? The C16 herbalist explains: “In time it waxeth so hard that the toughnesse and hardnesse of it may be rather compared to horn than unto wood, and therefore it was called hornbeame, or hardbeame” It is this feature of the wood that has limited the uses of hornbeam since its extreme hardness tended to blunt the tools used to work it; however, it was useful where extreme durability was needed as cogs in water and windmills. It was also used to make the yokes of oxen and milkmaids (I shudder at putting these as if they are equivalent!)
Hornbeam is an excellent wood for fuel and for charcoal making and this is likely the reason for previous hornbeam coppicing in Epping and other woods close to London.
When left to grow unfettered by coppicing or pollarding the hornbeam is a beautiful tree whose branches fan out around a stout, not tall, central trunk; it has a pleasing symmetry which is enhanced on closer acquaintance by the swirl in the bark. The leaves are often confused with beech leaves, look closer and they can be seen to have serrated edges around green pleats, uniquely hornbeam. The fruit is delightful, a samara, formed in groups akin to tiny pagodas hanging from the tree.
Perhaps the hornbeam’s time has come! Time to celebrate it for its beauty and its place in the woods and wood pastures of Essex and Hertfordshire.