Characteristics and Fun Facts
- Beeches are deciduous trees in the Fagaceae family
- There are 11 species of beech but two well known ones are the American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) and the European Beech (Fagus sylvatica).
- They can be found in North America, Europe and Asia
- Although often regarded as native in southern England, recent evidence has shown that it did not arrive in England until about 4000 B.C.E., or two thousand years after the English Channel formed after the ice ages; it was almost certainly an early introduction by Stone ageman, who used the nuts for food.
- Its dense canopy only allows small number of shade preferring species to survive in the undergrowth.
- The entire regeneration cycle of beech forests – from the time a beech grows, bears fruit, ages, dies and decays – lasts between 250 and 300 years, and in some cases even more.
- It requires a humid atmosphere (precipitation well distributed throughout the year and frequent fogs) and well-drained soil such as chalk, limestone and light loams.
- It prefers moderately fertile ground, calcified or lightly acidic, therefore it is found more often on the side of a hill than at the bottom of a clayey basin.
- It tolerates rigorous winter cold, but is sensitive to spring frost.
- Beech woodland makes an important habitat for many butterflies and moths, particularly in open glades and along woodland rides, including the barred hook-tip, clay triple-lines and olive crescent
- Young beeches prefer some shade and may grow poorly in full sunlight. In a clear-cut forest, a European Beech will germinate and then die of excessive dryness. Under oaks with sparse leaf cover it will quickly surpass them in height and, due to the beech’s dense foliage, the oaks will die from lack of sunlight.
- The root system is shallow. The following fungi genera form mycorrhizae with European Beech: Porcini, Milk caps, Amanita, Cantharellus, and Hebeloma
Beech timber is used for a variety of purposes, including fuel, furniture, cooking utensils, tool handles and sports equipment. The wood burns well and was traditionally used to smoke herring. Beech makes a popular hedging plant. If clipped it doesn’t shed its leaves, and provides a year-round dense screen, which provides a great habitat for garden birds.
Overview: mature trees grow to a height of more than 40m and develop a huge domed crown. The bark is smooth, thin and grey, often with slight horizontal etchings. The reddish brown, torpedo-shaped leaf buds form on short stalks, and have a distinctive criss-cross pattern.
Leaves: young leaves are lime green with silky hairs, which become darker green and lose their hairs as they mature. Turning golden to copper-orange in Autumn. They are 4–9cm long, stalked, oval and pointed at the tip, with a wavy edge.
Flowers: beech is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers grow on the same tree, in April and May. The tassel-like male catkins hang from long stalks at the end of twigs, while female flowers grow in pairs, surrounded by a cup.
Fruits: Beechnuts have a spiky exterior husk that pops open when ripe, revealing two small nuts, each oddly shaped with 3 pointed sides. Inside the outer husk, the seeds have a fiberous inner shell, that you can easily remove with a fingernail or by vigerously rubbing them between two towels. The nuts were once used to feed pigs, and in France they are still sometimes roasted and used as a coffee substitute. Beech is wind pollinated.
Look out for: the edges of the leaves are hairy. Triangular beech nuts form in prickly four lobed seed cases.
Could be confused with: hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). Beech leaves have wavy edges with small hairs as opposed to the serrated margins of hornbeam.
Eating Beech Nuts
Beech nuts are roughly 50% fat and 20% protein. In contrast, acorns from oak trees are only 7% protein. They contain the toxin saponin glycoside, which can cause gastric issues if you eat a large quantity of raw beechnuts. Roasting in a pan for 3 to 5 minutes is recommended to improve taste and nullify the toxins.
Historically in the US, beechnuts were ground into flour and cooked into cakes. Settlers extended the life of their flour by replacing half of it with beech flour in cakes, and at the same time got a more flavorful and nutritious cake as a result. A few more recipes here.
Beech trees can be tapped for syrup, just like maple trees. Tapping trees involves injuring the bark though, and creates sites of potential infection.
For Further Reading
If you want to know more about trees, particularly in the context of creating a forest garden, this book by Martin Crawford is worth checking out. It’s pretty affordable for a thick comprehensive book full of quality photographs and a lifetime’s worth of research and expertise from a man who has been at the forefront of forest gardening for the last 20 years.