One morning in an old neighborhood of Palo Alto, California, I came upon a hedge of trees that stopped my burn to Starbucks in my tracks. It was the most iridescent and mesmerizing fresh leaf green color I had ever seen, and had the form of a naturally topiaried tree. The tree was without any showy flower, or amazingly handsome bark or a fragrance that knocked me over, but almost had me in cardiac arrest. Wow! Botanical virginal green straight from God himself! It’s beauty has never failed me since frantically finding out its name, Carpinus betulus or the common name, ‘European Hornbeam’, and it’s splendor is implanted in my brain as the venations are on its leaf.
To say I’m ‘hornbeam struck’ is an understatement. Most of my landscape designs include at least a specimen or if the budget allows, an allee or hedge of the hornbeam. I validate this by pointing to it many wonderful qualities. Besides its magnificent fastigiate form, it tolerates a variety of soils, and culture suits zones 5-8 (where most people live, so you can most probably plant this at least as a specimen). It is slow growing but you will have it adorn this earth for at least 150 years after finally your own boots are put to rest. It’s a great tree to anchor surrounding plantings for all seasons and so often complements traditional and modern landscaping.
After more research of my beloved Carpinus betulus, I find out some more history and lore belonging to the tree. Fred Hageneder in his book,‘The Meaning of Trees’ (Duncan Baird Publishers: 2005) writes, ‘Latin carpinus is derived from Celtic car, q’er and carya, the ancient eastern Mediterranean goddess of wisdom.’ As the wood is extremely dense and durable another common name for Carpinus is ‘Ironwood’. In old times it was used for windmills, water cogs, axles and yokes for farm animals. The Cherokee used the astringent inner bark of the American hornbeam to treat discharges and urinary problems. Hageneder further mentions in ‘Europe hornbeam leaves have been used to treat wounds and stilled water from leaves as an eye lotion.’
In this age of instant gardens and impatience for nature to evolve before our eyes, it would be good to pause and put something in our designs that will last longer than 30 years. We probably will not enjoy its beauty at maturity but thank God gardeners and designers were thinking of our generation a hundred years ago so we may enjoy the heritage trees in our national parks today. I am biased towards the ‘must-have’ Hornbeam, but really you cannot go wrong with any of the classics like Beech, Japanese Stewartia, Chinese Elm and Quercus to name a few. Buy it, grow it, name it and if you want to, talk to it. I can assure you, if you pick the Hornbeam, alias ‘the goddess of wisdom’, it will give you much pleasure and delight.