Floridata Plant Encyclopedia

A Floridata Plant Profile 1267 Carpinus betulus

Common Names: European hornbeam,European hornbeam Family: Betulaceae (birch Family)
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European hornbeam
There are several European hornbeam cultivars and 'Fastigiata', seen in this photo, is the most commonly planted.


European hornbeam is an elegant and stately tree of medium size, that can get as tall as 80 ft (25 m), with a spread of 60 ft (18 m) or more. Normally, though, cultivated hornbeams usually max out around 40 ft (12 m) in height with a spread half that. Young trees tend to be pyramidal in shape, becoming more rounded and developing a teardrop shape as they mature. The bark is slate gray and fluted with smooth, sinewy, muscle-like ripples. The deciduous leaves are clean and bright green, and arranged alternately along the twigs; they are long-oval, up to 4 in (10 cm) in length, pointed at the tips and rounded at the bases. The leaf margins are doubly toothed and there are 10-14 pairs of conspicuous parallel veins. The flowers (not particularly showy) are hanging unisexual catkins, to 3 in (8 cm) long, with the yellowish male and the greenish female flowers borne on the same tree. The fruit is a small nut about 1/3 in (83 mm) long, hanging from the base of a 3-lobed leaf-like bract. Several of these little umbrellas are arranged in single file on a hanging stalk about 5 in (13 cm) long. The whole affair looks a little like a dangling Japanese pagoda, first green, then becoming yellowish-brown as it matures. The leaves turn subdued shades of yellow and orange in fall.

Popular cultivars include 'Columnaris', a slow growing, densely foliated tree with a tall, slender pyramid shape; 'Pendula', or weeping hornbeam, with drooping branches; 'Purpurea' with purplish young leaves; ‘Carpinizza’, with smaller leaves; and 'Globosa', which is rounded and moundlike with no central trunk, and stays less than 20' tall. The most commonly grown cultivar, however, is 'Fastigiata' (also known as ‘Pyramidalis’), which is slender in youth, and becomes more rounded and vase shaped as it maxes out around 50 ft (15 m) in height. This is the hornbeam of formal European and (increasingly) American gardens and estates.


Carpinus betulus is native to the deciduous forests of Central and Southern Europe and the Middle East. It has been cultivated as an ornamental for centuries, and is used extensively in England’s iconic hedgerows.


A rather slow growing tree, European hornbeam will increase in height a little more than a foot per year. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions from acid to alkaline and clayey to sandy. Light: Hornbeam thrives in full sun to light shade. Moisture: Hornbeams like a moist, but well drained soil. They don’t do well in sandy soils that dry out excessively, nor in soils that stay wet all the time. Hardiness: USDA Zones 4 - 7 . European hornbeam survives in zone 8A, but doesn't develop good fall color and suffers in summer. It is only marginally hardy in Zone 4. Propagation: Sow seed outside in autumn. Some will germinate then, others may wait until spring or even later. Fast growing greenwood stem tips can be rooted in spring and summer. Cultivars are typically grafted or budded onto seedlings of the species. To get the picturesque umbrella shape in the cultivar ‘Pendula’, horticulturalists graft a bud onto a seedling of the species that has been grown as a 3-4 ft (90-120 cm) tall standard.

 European hornbeam catkin
The European hornbeam produces interesting green fruits that dangle from the branches in the breeze.
 European hornbeam catkin
The maturing nut can be seen in this ant's eye view of a hornbeam catkin.


European hornbeam is a large, handsome tree widely used as a specimen tree in parks, along streets and in home landscapes. It has a fine texture, dramatic architecture, attractive winter bark, dense summer foliage, semi-showy pendulous catkins in spring, and unusual looking fruits in autumn.

European hornbeam tolerates a wide variety of soil types and is said to tolerate air pollution better than many trees. Hornbeams are often used for screening and hedges, and for topiary, because they have dense foliage and tolerate very heavy pruning. European hornbeam, with its tall, symmetrical habit and simmering dark green foliage, is at its best in a formal, well manicured landscape. Both male and female flowers are borne on the same tree, so you need only one to appreciate the curious little pagoda-like fruits that dangle from twigs and branches from late summer through fall.

The wood is strong and heavy, and used for tool handles, wheel spokes, building construction, piano components, and was once used for the yokes that bind oxen.


European hornbeam is quite similar to American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana). The American species is a smaller tree, rarely exceeding 15-20 ft (5-6 m) in height. It has hairy buds and 5-7 veins on the bracts that overhang the fruits, whereas the European species has smooth buds and 3-5 veins on the leaflike bracts. American hornbeam is better adapted for use in the southern US, and European hornbeam is better in cooler climates.

Steve Christman July 29, 2016

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Carpinus species profiled on Floridata:

Carpinus betulus

( European hornbeam,European hornbeam )

Carpinus caroliniana

( American hornbeam, musclewood, ironwood, blue beech )

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