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Beech, copper (Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea)

Copper beech, also known as purple beech, is a cultivar of common beech.

Common name: copper beech

Scientific name: Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea
Family: Fagaceae

UK provenance: non-native

Interesting fact: copper beeches appeared as natural mutants of the common beech in various parts of Europe, as early as the 15th century.

What does copper beech look like?

Overview: grows to a height of more than 40m. The bark is smooth, thin and grey, often with slight horizontal etchings. Twigs are slender and grey but not straight - their shape resembles a zig-zag. Torpedo-shaped leaf buds are coppery and up to 2cm in length, with a distinctive criss-cross pattern.

Leaves: coppery to deep purple in colour, oval and fringed with silky brown hairs.

Flowers: monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. In April and May the copper beech’s tassel-like male catkins hang from long stalks at the end of twigs, while female flowers grow in pairs, surrounded by a cup.

Fruits: once wind pollinated, this cup becomes woody and encloses one or two reddish brown beech nuts (known as beechmast).

Look out for: the red to purple leaves mark a clear difference from the common beech.

Could be confused with: hornbeam (Carpinus betulus). Copper beech leaves have a wavy edge with small hairs as opposed to the serrated margins of hornbeam leaves.

Identified in winter by: like common beech the buds are sharply pointed.

Where to find copper beech

Copper beech is classified as native in the south of England and non-native in the north. Changing climatic conditions have put beech populations in southern England under increased stress and while it may not be possible to maintain the current levels of beech in some sites it is thought that conditions for beech in north-west England may improve. 

Beech copper has several preferred habitat traits, including a humid atmosphere and well-drained soil. It prefers fertile calcified or lightly acidic ground and is often found on the side of hills.

It is widely grown as an ornamental tree for its distinctive purple leaves. As a cultivar it has no natural range, but shares many characteristics with common beech. 

Value to wildlife

As with common beech, the foliage of copper beech 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.

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

There is little folklore relating to beech. However, 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.

How we use copper beech

Like common beech, copper 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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