Beech, common (Fagus sylvatica)

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Common beech is a large, deciduous tree, native to southern England and South Wales.

Common name: common beech, European beech

Scientific name: Fagus sylvatica
Family: Fagaceae

UK provenance: native

Interesting fact: beech can live for hundreds of years with coppiced stands living for more than 1,000 years.

What does beech look like? 

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. 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: the cup becomes woody once pollinated, and encloses one or two beech nuts (known as beechmast). 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.

Identified in winter by: leaf buds are distinctively, sharply pointed and not pressed against the twigs.

Where to find beech

Its natural habitat extends over a large part of Eurpoe from southern Sweden to northern Sicily. It requires a humid atmosphere and well-drained soil. It can be sensitive to winter frost.

It usually grows on drier, free-draining soils, such as chalk, limestone and light loams. Beech woodland is shady and is characterised by a dense carpet of fallen leaves and mast husks, which prevent most woodland plants from growing. Only specialist shade tolerant plants can survive beneath a beech canopy.

Value to wildlife

Due to its dense canopy, rarer plant species are associated with beech woodland, such as box, coralroot bitter-cress, and a variety of orchids including red helleborine. Beech woodland makes an important habitat for many butterflies, particularly in open glades and along woodland rides.

Beech foliage is eaten by the caterpillars of a number of moths, including the barred hook-tip, clay triple-lines and olive crescent. The seeds are eaten by mice, voles, squirrels and birds.

Native truffle fungi grow in beech woods. These fungi are ectomycorrhizal, which means they help the host tree obtain nutrients in exchange for some of the sugar the tree produces through photosynthesis. Remember to take expert advice before picking or eating any wild fungi.

Because beech trees live for so long they provide habitats for many deadwood specialists such as hole-nesting birds and wood-boring insects. The bark is often home to a variety of fungi, mosses and lichens. 

Mythology and symbolism

Beech is associated with femininity and is often considered the queen of British trees, where oak is the king. 

In Celtic mythology, Fagus was the god of beech trees. It was thought to have medicinal properties – beech leaves were used to relieve swellings, and boiling the leaves could make a poultice. Forked beech twigs are also traditionally used for divining.

How we use beech

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. The edible nuts, or masts, were once used to feed pigs, and in France they are still sometimes roasted and used as a coffee substitute.  

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.  

Threats

Beech trees are sometimes susceptible to root rot from a variety of fungal pathogens, including Phytophthora. Some trees can suffer from beech bark disease, caused by a combination of a sap-sucking scale insect, Cryptococcus fagisuga and canker fungus, Nectria coccinea. Severe infestations can kill affected trees. It is also very vulnerable to bark stripping by grey squirrels.

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