National Tree Week: The Bountiful Beech

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It’s nearly time for National Tree Week, an annual celebration of trees’ importance as well as a winter planting prompt. This year, the event runs from 25th November to 3rd December, and there are tree planting sessions across the UK. To help celebrate, this post looks at one of our most popular trees, the European beech. This beautiful species often holds onto its leaves for much of the year, providing an ever-changing kaleidoscope of colour as we move through the seasons. Read on to find out more about this ‘queen of trees’.

Queen of Trees

The beech is one of our most familiar and best-loved trees here in the UK. It is often called the ‘queen of trees’ in contrast to the ‘king’, the oak. Mature trees can reach heights of over 40 metres despite having relatively shallow roots. They can live for more than 400 years, although 250 years is the average. The crowns of older trees form impressive domes. Beech bark is smooth and dark grey and, to me at least, resembles nothing so much as elephant hide!

Beech woods
An autumn avenue of beech trees
Beech roots
Beech roots are relatively shallow
Beech bark
The tree’s bark is relatively smooth and to me resembles an elephant’s hide!

Beech leaves, meanwhile, are oval, prominently veined and have wavy edges. Hornbeams have similar leaves, but these are smaller and have more obviously serrated edges. In spring, young beech leaves are a distinctive lime green colour. As the leaves age, they grow darker green before turning to yellow and then a wonderful coppery brown in autumn. Interestingly, although deciduous, beeches often retain many of these dead, autumn leaves until the new spring ones appear, a phenomenon called marcescence. This occurs most often on a tree’s lower branches and on trimmed beech hedges. Where leaves do fall, they form a wonderfully dense carpet of copper.

Spring beech leaves
Spring beech leaves are a distinctive lime green
Beech leaves
Although beeches hold onto some of their dead leaves, many still fall to create a golden carpet in autumn

In winter, the first leaf buds appear. Long, red and pointed, they stick out at an angle from the twigs. Again, there is some similarity with hornbeam trees. Hornbeam leaf buds are held much tighter into the stem, however. Beech produces both male and female flowers on the same plants so are what’s known as monoecious. Male flowers grow as loose tassels while female flowers usually stick more upright. Once pollinated, each female flower produces one or two nuts, or mast, enclosed in a prickly, woody, four-lobed case.

Beech leaf bud
Beech leaf buds stick out at an angle from the twigs
Young beechmast
Young beechmast pods

Northward Bound

Although found across much of the UK, beeches prefer well-drained soils. As a result, they are particularly widespread across areas of limestone, including chalk. The Chilterns and parts of the Cotswolds consequently both have good areas of beech wood. On the Continent they grow naturally across a central belt from France to Romania, extending north to southern Sweden and south to northern Spain. Introduced populations exist elsewhere in Europe. Although beeches like some humidity, they don’t favour overly wet habitats. They are also fairly intolerant to pollution so don’t tend to make good street or urban park trees. That previously mentioned habit of holding onto its leaves means it has become a popular hedge plant with homeowners as it provides cover and privacy all year round.

Beech tree
Norwegian trees, like this one, are from introduced populations

As with some of the UK’s other tree species, there is some disagreement about when beeches arrived where in this country. Most scientists agree that the beech returned to the UK quite slowly after the last Ice Age compared to early returnees like lime and birch. However, what happened next is up for debate. Some believe beeches are only truly ‘native’ to the southeast of England and Wales, with trees further north only there as a result of planting by man. Research by the University of Stirling, though, found that Scottish beeches are descendants of British trees rather than Continental ones and so can also be considered native. As the species seems happy in more northern latitudes, they say that it would have spread to Scotland by itself, albeit more slowly than with planting.

Beech leaves
The beech’s native status in parts of the UK is still uncertain to some extent

Of Mycorrhizas and Mast

Beech woods have especially dense canopies. This means that many other species can’t compete for light, and only specialist plants can succeed alongside beeches. Shade tolerant species such as yew, bluebells and some orchids characterise our beech woods as a result. Many fungi species are closely associated with beech woods, as well. These include the beechwood sickener, porcelain fungus, devil’s bolete and magpie inkcap. Many of these fungi species have a symbiotic relationship with the beeches called a mycorrhizal partnership. The fungi help the tree’s roots access nutrients and moisture from the soil in exchange for sugars from the plant.

Porcelain fungus
Porcelain fungus is one of many specialist beech wood fungi

Beeches also provide good habitat for invertebrates and nesting birds. Older trees tend to have nice nesting holes, while any unshed leaves in late winter and early spring offer good cover. Most important to other wildlife, though, is beechmast. Mice, badgers and squirrels eat these nuts, as well as a large number of bird species. These include chaffinches, bramblings, jays, nuthatches and great and coal tits. One reproductive quirk that beeches share with oak trees is a tendency to produce smaller crops most of the time, but then have a bumper ‘mast year’ every five or ten years. This behaviour may have evolved to keep predator species in check. When the trees do then produce a large crop, mast eating species won’t be at high enough numbers to eat everything, and enough seeds survive to become new trees. The beeches also save valuable energy by not going all-out every year. Unsurprisingly, research shows that beech eating birds visit garden feeders less in mast years as there is plenty of food elsewhere.

Many woodland bird species eat beechmast, including the brambling

The Beech Tree and Man

Man has made use of beech trees for millennia. Its wood is easy to work with and was used traditionally to make furniture, guitars and tool and utensil handles. The soft bark was supposedly used as a writing tablet before paper became more widely available. Beech wood also burns steadily and slowly, and its pleasant smell made it popular for smoking herrings and cheese. Historically, smallholders let pigs out into beech woods to eat mast. The tree’s nuts are edible by humans as well, although eating large quantities of raw nuts can cause an upset stomach. They have a high oil content, as well as iron and zinc. Ersatz coffee and flour can also be made out of ground beechmast. The leaves have an almost citrusy taste and can be added to salads.

Beech leaves
Beech leaves can be eaten in salads

Beech trees haven’t just been important practically, however. Man has long had a spiritual connection to this beautiful tree. In southwestern France, Celtic inscriptions dating from the Roman period point to worship of Fagus, the god of beech trees. The name is Latin for beech and reflects the way the Romans readily adopted local religions and gods when they conquered a region. The name lives on as the genus name for beeches. More generally, many of us still feel there is something particularly special about beech woods. In spring, the light filtering through the thick, lime green canopy has a quality found in no other woods. In autumn, the trees seem on fire with their vibrant palates of golds, rusts and bronzes. Why not get out this National Tree Week and worship this incredible species in a beech wood near you?

Beech tree
The flame-like appearance of an autumn beech

Further Reading

Find out more about the Tree Council and their National Tree Week events here.

Tree-spotting by mother and daughter team Ros and Nell Bennett is a brilliant introduction to identifying 52 British trees. As well as individual species accounts, there are winter keys to buds and twigs and summer keys to leaves. The book also delves into the relationship between trees and fungi and the history of woods in the UK.

Richard Mabey’s classic, previously published as Beechcombings, looks at our changing relationship with trees. He explores the ways we have appropriated trees to our own ends and impeded their survival as a result. Looking to the future, Mabey shows that we need to set trees free of our own demands and expectations if they are to survive.

Natural navigator Tristan Gooley has been teaching people how to use nature’s tracks, signs and clues to find their way since 2008. Following books on reading the landscape, water, tracks and the weather, Gooley’s latest book shows what trees tell us not only about themselves but also the surrounding land if we only know what to look for.

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