This morning started out grey and windy, with heavy showers. Now the rain has gone, and we are left with candy-floss clouds and very blustery, autumnal winds. Floppy, brown horse-chestnut leaves are blowing from the trees, covering the pavements and paths with a slippery, soggy mess; and tiny helicopters are cascading from the hornbeam trees. Unlike ash and sycamore keys which have two wings, hornbeam keys have three wings, and although they don’t look at all aerodynamic, they certainly spin quickly as they fall. The hornbeam is a deciduous broadleaf tree commonly found in the oak woodlands of Southern England. Growing to about 30 metres, these trees can live in excess of 300 years. The name ‘hornbeam’ comes from ‘horn’ due to the hardness of the wood, and ‘beam’ meaning tree in Old English. Hornbeam timber is creamy white, extremely hard and strong, and is mainly used for furniture and flooring. Traditionally it was used for ox-yokes, butchers blocks and cogs for windmills and watermills. The fruit is a small nut about 3-6mm long, held in a leafy tri-lobed bract. The bract is asymmetrical, and it is this unbalanced nature that helps it spin as it falls.
A few days ago the squirrels were scurrying through the hornbeam trees in my garden, tearing at the keys as they searched out the tiny nuts. Cracking sounds as sharp teeth bit into the nut shells, and shredded leaves fluttering to the ground, betrayed their presence. But now the acorns are ripe, so the squirrels have abandoned my hornbeam, for larger treasure in the garden next door.