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The town where I live plants both hornbeam trees (Carpinus betulus) and hophornbeans (Ostrya carpinifolia) as street trees. How can they be reliably distinguished, especially when there is no fruit on the tree? The fruit is different but the leaves are very similar.

To be clear, this question is about the European-native species, not American ones.

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Both plants like similar mesic conditions and so can be found in similar locations. However, these plants are actually very easy to tell apart using only a few easily observable characteristics*.

Bark:

  • Ostrya is peely/shreddy brown

  • Carpinus is smooth and grey. The bark almost looks sinewy, leading to its much better common name: muscle wood.

Leaves are both doubly serrate and similar in size. However, leaf texture is different:

  • Ostrya is finely hairy. Best to feel with lips (more sensitive) when 1st getting used to difference.

  • Carpinus is smooth (glabrous) and even somewhat papery like Fagus.

  • now, if I could only remember which one had the hop in its name! (this is why I stick to scientific names :p)

I'll update with sources soon.

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  • $\begingroup$ I took the time to find an Ostrya where I could reach the leaves so I could examine one close up. You are right that it feels hairy, although some Carpinus leaves I got for comparison also feel slightly hairy (if not as much). However, the Carpinus seams to be hairy only on the underside and only along the veins, while the Ostrya is also hairy on the top and inbetween veins. Under a magnifying glass, the Ostrya hairs are shorter than the Carpinus hairs, and this seems to be confirmed by the German article I linked (as far as I can tell, my German is not good). $\endgroup$
    – Szabolcs
    Jun 27 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ Two more interesting differences are: The tertiary veins clearly stand out on the Ostrya (like on big-leaf linden), but not so much on the Carpinus (which is more like little-lead linden). This is also confirmed by the German article. Finally, some of the secondary veins branch out on the Ostrya, but not on any of the Carpinus I looked at. This is the easiest to see difference. Do you know if it is a reliable way to distinguish them? $\endgroup$
    – Szabolcs
    Jun 27 at 20:27
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    $\begingroup$ Picture of two Carpinus with Ostrya in the middle $\endgroup$
    – Szabolcs
    Jun 27 at 20:31

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