Home   Plants   Dr M talks British tree identification – Beech and Hornbeam

Dr M talks British tree identification – Beech and Hornbeam

Dr M in full flow talking to the trees! (image courtesy of Waheed Arshad).

Dr M is currently teaching British tree identification in his Vegetation Survey and Assessment module on the MSc Plant Diversity and MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills.

During a recent 2-hour walk in autumnal sunshine, the class collected twigs and leaves from no fewer than 27 genera.  And this by no means an exhaustive collection as the Reading campus is home to a very diverse range of native, naturalised and planted deciduous and coniferous trees.

Two species of common deciduous trees are Beech (Fagus sylvatica, Family Fagaceae) and Hornbeam (Carpinus betulus, Family Betulaceae).

These two often confused and when Dr M includes Hornbeam in a test a number of students think Beech, and when Dr M includes Beech, students think Hornbeam!

But really they are very different one from the other when examined more carefully.  Put them together and probably there is no confusion, so the trick is to remember the key distinguishing features, of which there are at least three.


Fagus twig (l), Carpinus twig (r)

Fagus twig (l), Carpinus twig (r)

The twigs of both look rather similar, the leaves are alternately arranged on the twigs and spreading out flat in one plane, certainly superficial similarities.


Beech leaf (l), Hornbeam leaf (r)

Beech leaf (l), Hornbeam leaf (r)

But look at the leaves, Beech has smoother, rather glossy leaves, the margin with shallowly undulating teeth, while Hornbeam has rougher, more furrowed leaves, the margin with distinctive double serrations – larger teeth alternating with smaller teeth, rather like a tenon saw (click on the image to see this feature more clearly).


The buds are also helpful, Beech with its long cigar-shaped buds quite contrasting with Hornbeam’s shorter, oval pointed buds.

If fruits are present Beech bears large (1 cm or so long) 3-angled nuts borne in soft spiny husks (cupules – typical of Fagaceae), while Hornbeam has smaller nuts held in leafy bracts (typical of Betulaceae).

So the differences are really quite plain for all to see, never again will students mistake these two…is that a bet? 😉




  • Neil Coleman

    From doing my “Tree Spotting” badge in the scouts 60 years ago, I seem to remember that we differentiated between beech and hornbeam by the trunks also, apart from the leaves. Is one not more “fluted” than the other?

  • Anne Ryland

    One of the trees in my pleached hornbeam hedge is dropping leaves that are yellowed with brown edges. Do you think the tree is deseased?

  • Anne

    Do you speak some French? Because it has the best memo trick for these two species. I regularly enjoy this page btw

  • Stephen Lawrence

    Yes – beech has v smooth trunk, hornbeam wide, deep ridges.

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