Usefulness and services of the tree :
Features and characters of the individual
Not far from the stadium, this smooth-barked tree with its ‘muscular’ trunk seems to carry itself like a hornbeam. Without a doubt, this tree belongs to a hardy species. How long will it stand up against human pressure? Its roots are trampled by crowds leaving the stadium, and the soil is densely compacted by pedestrians who often sit at the foot of the tree…
Hornbeams grow in Brussels in their thousands. Only a little under a hundred of them are listed on the region’s scientific inventory of remarkable trees though. Amongst those special few, one specimen stands out. At the top of Parc Astrid, a well-known place for football fans visiting the R.S.C. Anderlecht stadium, there is a charming hornbeam tree growing. This hornbeam is the champion of the region, and its presence on the landscape does not go unnoticed. Standing at the bottom of the hill, you can see the tree’s silhouette standing out from the forest. At first sight – and from a distance – its ample, high crown together with its straight trunk are reminiscent of a beech tree, or perhaps an elm. And yet, this is hornbeam. Its massive trunk has a circumference of more than 3 meters, which is particularly large for this species.
When you get closer to this tree, it’s clearer to see that this is not a beech tree. In autumn, its clustered fruit gets scattered on the grass below, announcing its presence to the surrounding area. Its fruit are distinctive: each fruit (an achene) surrounds a seed with seedwings that look like sails (a bract), which allow them to be dispersed by the wind. This bract is shaped like duck legs, comprising three lobes: one big one in the middle and a small one on each side. This could be the emblem for hornbeams, as it is a sure-fire way to recognise them. You can see them amongst the foliage for a good part of the year.
Hornbeam leaves are quite similar to those of beech trees: oval-shaped and ending in a point. However, as hornbeam leaves are doubly serrated, it’s easy to tell them apart: the edge of the leaf blade has relatively large teeth, and then on these teeth there are more, smaller teeth. Leaves of beech trees, on the other hand, are completely smooth and sometimes a little hairy at the ends – they aren’t serrate at all.
A distinctive feature of hornbeams, though, is their trunks. Even if the bark is smooth to start with (like with a beech tree), it will quickly start to develop grooves and ridges. On our specimen here, the grooves are deep; this is a sign of age. You could gently slide your hand between the raised sections of the bark. The ridges have an appearance a little bit like dense, hard muscles. This is typical of hornbeams. Contrarily, the trunks of beech trees are totally smooth and quite cylindrical. Hornbeams often have a shape that’s much more twisted and tortured, but this particular tree is a sleek and muscular specimen, almost like a statue of an athlete from Greek antiquity.
Hornbeams are known for their strength and hardiness, and this giant is a good representative of this; its wood is some of the hardest. In the past, wood from hornbeam trees was appreciated when making things that needed to withstand shocks and mechanical pressure, such as wheels, toothed gears, mallets, screws, etc.
This tree has been growing at Parc Astrid for more than 100 years. Originally knowing this park from the time when it was attached to a large property, the tree has since witnessed a series of upheavals in the surrounding area. The tree was present for the park’s transformation: it’s opening to the public, the opening of the stadium, and also the school. The tree has held up well during these developments though, and its resistance over time gives it a particular, historical value. What’s more: this tree oversaw the opening of R.S.C. Anderlecht’s home stadium and has been present for every match ever since! 😉
Standing here, you could say that this tree has had a bit of a hard time. On the stadium side, it has seen crowds of supporters pouring past its base, trampling over the ground and compacting it a lot. And then, on the park side, the tree has played host to thousands of Brussels citizens picnicking or taking a break underneath it, taking advantage of the soft shade that the tree casts. Like most trees in public parks, this tree has suffered from too many people using the lawn around where it grows. The tree’s roots now lack air and water due to the surrounding earth being compacted. However, as if by magic, the tree is still here and it is in good health: like a lucky charm on the landscape. (P.C)