Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) is native to Britain and, along with the Yew, is one of our most majestic and stately hedging plants. But, unlike the Yew, it has always been regarded as a practical, rather than magical, plant. In fact, Hornbeam’s main entry in English folklore is both rather grisly and somewhat tenuous…
The story of The Babes in the Wood was first published in Norwich in1595 and unlike in its more familiar pantomime versions, told the tale of how the two siblings met their end in a wood – to be precise, in the ancient Wayland Wood near Watton in Norfolk. And one of the most notable features of Wayland Wood is its Hornbeam coppice…well, I said it was tenuous.
Hornbeam did feature in the old herbals – it was the main ingredient of a popular pick-me-up and its leaves were used to staunch bleeding and heal wounds. However, Hornbeam wood is also extremely strong and is, therefore far better known as the preferred wood for ox-yokes, butcher’s blocks, piano pegs, parquet flooring, chess pieces and windmill cogs. It is also coppiced and pollarded for poles, slow-burning firewood and charcoal.
But its true place in our lives is, as it always was, as a classic hedge, topiary specimen or a glorious tree left to grow as it will.