Hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, is a large, attractive tree native to the UK. The apple green, pleated foliage turns yellow and orange in autumn – this is often held on the tree during winter. Green catkins appear in spring and winged nuts (called samaras) develop in autumn. Hornbeams have a pyramidal shape that later becomes more rounded.
Hornbeams are tough trees that can cope with exposed conditions. They can be grown as a standalone, specimen tree in a large garden or as part of mixed woodland planting. They are suitable for coppicing and pollarding to keep them more compact; pleached trees are also available. Hornbeam is also a popular choice for a formal hedge.
Hornbeam gets its name from the strength of its wood – ‘beam’ means ‘tree’ in old English. As it holds its foliage over winter, it provides shelter and roosting sites for birds. In spring, the leaves are a food plant for insects, including several moths. In autumn, birds including finches and tits and small mammals eat the winged seeds that fall to the ground.
As it keeps its dense autumn foliage over winter, the hornbeam tree is useful for screening. Expect your tree to grow at a rate of 30cm-60cm each year. Carpinus betulus has the prestigious RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM). Hornbeams can live for over 300 years.
How to grow hornbeam trees
For best results grow hornbeam in any moist but well-drained soil in full sun to partial shade.
Hornbeam: jump links
- Planting hornbeam
- Caring for hornbeam
- Propagating hornbeam
- Growing hornbeam: problem-solving
- Buying hornbeam
- Best hornbeam to grow
Where to grow a hornbeam tree
Grow a hornbeam tree in any moist but well drained soil, in full sun or partial shade. No pruning is necessary. It’s perfect as part of a mixed woodland planting scheme.
How to plant a hornbeam tree
- Stand the tree in water to ensure its roots are damp
- Dig a square hole that’s slightly wider than the pot your tree is in, but no deeper. Lightly fork the base and sides of the hole to ensure the soil isn’t compacted
- Remove the pot from container-grown trees and any wrapping from bare-root ones. Tease out and unwind any circling roots. Stand the tree in the planting hole, then lay a cane across the hole to check that the top of the rootball – or the dark soil mark on bare-root trees – is level with the soil surface
- Backfill around the rootball with the excavated soil, shaking the tree a little to help the soil settle around the roots. Use your heel to firm gently all around the rootball and ensure there is good contact between the roots and the soil
- If planting in an exposed site, stake the tree to prevent windrock, which can tear the roots and create a gap around the base of the trunk that can fill with water and encourage rot. The stake should be about a third of the height of the tree, hammered in at a 45° angle. Attach the trunk to the stake using an adjustable tree tie
- Water the tree thoroughly, then keep it watered during dry spells for at least the first year
Read our detailed guide to planting trees.
Caring for a hornbeam tree
Keep your tree well watered in its first year, while its roots are establishing. After that it should get all the moisture it needs from rainfall. Hornbeams do not need pruning but they can be pollarded or coppiced to keep them compact. If you’re growing a hornbeam hedge, clip it once a year in mid- to late summer to keep it looking tidy. Find out more about pruning a hornbeam hedge.
How to propagate hornbeams
Hornbeam can be propagated via seeds. Sow at any time of year – germination can take up to a year.
- Sow thinly on the surface of moist seed compost, seal in a polythene bag
- Place in a cold frame or sheltered part of the garden
- Transplant the seedlings when large enough to handle into small, individual pots. Grow on in a sheltered spot
Hornbeams can also be propagated via softwood cuttings.
Growing hornbeam trees: problem solving
Hornbeam is largely problem free. It may be affected by Phytopthera, fungal disease. To avoid it, make sure it has good drainage. Grey squirrels can peel the bark – protect young trees with guards or chicken wire.
Advice on buying a hornbeam tree
- You can buy hornbeam trees either as bare root trees (supplied when dormant in winter) or as pot-grown trees, which can be planted at any time of year
- Buying a young, bare root sapling is the most economical way to buy, but if you want instant impact, choose the largest pot-grown tree you can afford
- Buy from a specialist tree nursery or online retailer
- Check that you have enough room for a hornbeam tree as they can reach 20m tall
Where to buy hornbeam trees online
Varieties of hornbeam to grow
Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’ – neater and denser than the species, and the leaves have more of a glossy sheen. Young plants grow quickly, producing a formal, almost triangular shape. The Royal Horticultural Society has given it its prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM). Height x Spread: 25m x 10m