Our friend David Hughes from Weatherwood Design just got in touch - he wants us to grow a few dozen hornbeams for him. He makes beautiful rustic furniture from elements of our local natural areas - invasive vines, downed wood... and is drawn to, well, obsessed with the wild and elegant form of our native hornbeams.
Both hornbeams (that is, hornbeam and hop hornbeam, or, if you prefer, ironwood and ironwood, or Carpinus caroliniana andOstrya virginiana) are tough small trees well-evolved to life beneath the canopy of our forest giants. They have tough, flexible wood (hence their names) and a certain amount of non-linear flexibility in their growth patterns as they seek light in forest gaps and edges, and spring back from the buffeting of heavy oak and hickory limbs crashing from above.
Carpinus caroliniana reaching for light over a rushing stream
Hornbeam, above, is especially plastic in its form, and its meandering stems are fluted rather than radially symmetrical. This latter attribute, combined with the small tree's smooth bark, evoke the sinews of an muscular leg, in athletic poise.
I've walked through colonial stands of Carpinus with David and, though he is a great lover of all things living, I know (well, he admits) he is just dreaming of a storm snapping a couple of nice lithe stems for him.
David's solution is to plant a coppice grove of hornbeams as a ready supply of eccentrically charismatic furniture wood, and hence his request to us.
Coppicing is an ancient form of timbering on the sustainable end of the spectrum, taking advantage of many tree species' natural abilities to resprout and form multiple stems after being cut near the ground. Regrowth from the already-established root systems is fast relative to seedling growth, and coppicing supplies pole-sized timber on a fairly reliable schedule.
Oaks and hickories coppice too, as well as some other canopy trees; seeing several multi-trunked individuals of desirable timber species in a natural area is an easy way to surmise that logging took place in the past and certain cut trees were able to resprout.
Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a bit more upright than its relative Carpinus. It tends towards the drier open woods of ridges and slopes, rather than the bottom lands. Part of its visual charm lies in its fine peeling bark, and its palpable strength. It tends to be more linear than Carpinus, but not always:
Hop hornbeam with a "window"
Its seeds are contained in loose papery sacs, resembling hops in aggregate. The first time Rachel and I collected Ostrya seeds, we were surprised to find that the sacs were covered with fine downy hairs with the sharpness and persistence of fiberglass... tiny splinters that were impossible to remove.
Ouch! Hop hornbeam seeds are well defended
The seeds of both species tend to take two years to germinate, though they will germinate more plentifully the first year if they are harvested fresh (before the seeds dry and go into deeper dormancy), and if they are given a lengthy warm period before cold.
We're hoping to get David's plants to him as quickly as possible, but... it may be a few years to germinate, grow, and then plant, cut, and coppice them. Hopefully David's first coppice-grown hornbeam rocking chairs will be available for us to buy before we retire!