The European Beech is one of a large family of about a thousand species, mostly
trees, which grow all over the non-tropical parts of the world. Only a few are
native to northern temperate regions.
'Fagus' is derived from a Latin word for 'eating', because the seeds of the tree are edible. 'Sylvatica' is also Latin and means 'of the woods'.
The word 'beech' is an Anglo-Saxon derivation and is in many North-west European languages synonymous with the word 'book': 'bok' in Swedish, 'buche' in German, 'beuk' in Dutch, 'boece' in old English. This is due to the fact that in this part of the world beech wood was used to inscribe runes and literature on, and so tablets and thin slices of Beech were probably the earliest European books within our present memory.
The European Beech is the most common dominant climax tree of the woodlands and forests of central Europe and here it grows in a wide range of soils: acidic, neutral and calcareous. It is often found in combination with Silver Fir and Norway Spruce on the continent and this trio makes very productive, soil-improving forests. In the southern mountains of central Europe it will ascend to 1700 metres. The Beech is a native tree from southern Norway and Sweden down to northern Spain, Italy and the Balkans. The biggest species are found on low-lying sheltered parts. Towards the edges of its northern range it becomes rather stunted. In Finland, for example, its appearance will be much more bush-like.
The tree is able to thrive in poor thin soils, since its roots have a habit of spreading widely all through the upper layers of the soil. This is probably an important contributory reason why, in a wood that starts of with both oak and beech, the beech will usually end up being the dominating tree.
The beech cannot cope with waterlogged soils and it prefers dry light soils. It also does well in heavier, stiffer loams, as long as the subsoil does not have a wet character. However, having said that, people have also observed that, as climate changes cause prolonged periods of hot dry weather, that the Beech does not thrive in drought conditions.
Beech delights in chalky subsoil and in Britain it is still only found growing naturally in the Cotswold Hills, the Chiltern Hills and the Sussex Downs, where the soils overlies chalk or limestone. Pollen grain studies suggest that Beech has been native to south England for at least 7000 years, but only around 500 BC did it spread to any considerable extent, including Wales and northwards to Yorkshire. Agricultural and timber felling practices may have eventually reduced its spread again, except on the thin limestone soils, which may not have been as attractive for ploughing to farmers as the more fertile lowlands.
Beech is an important timber tree and has displaced the Oak as Britain's biggest hardwood 'crop'. It has been successfully planted by foresters, as far north as Aberdeen, for its valuable wood, as shelterbelts, and as soil improvers. The beauty of this tree with its massive smooth trunk, its deep shade and attractive Autumn foliage, has also made it an extremely popular, widely planted ornamental tree. Young trees and those who are continually pruned, keep the brown , dry leaves on the twigs all through the winter and this peculiarity has made beech hedges a favourite choice around gardens and wherever else a windbreak or a non-see-through deciduous hedge is required.
Depending on soil and position, the Beech can grow into a massive tree of up to 140 feet high with an impressive crown of up to 130 feet feet wide. Hundred feet high specimens are not a rarity and the tree grows generally larger than the Oak. The stately, column-like trunks rise straight and smooth and may become 8 feet in diameter or more.
In summer, the foliage is so dense, that it can be difficult to spot the well-shaped branches. The lack of sunlight at the bottom of the crown is the reason why the lower branches die off in time.
The roots can be massive as well, but relatively shallow, spreading wide horizontally not far below the ground surface. They often start, like all the best illustrations in very book trees, from the trunk above ground level, giving the tree a broad-looking footing. This apparent stability can be deceptive, since horizontally spreading roots in a shallow soil can make the tree vulnerable to strong winds.
The combination of the needy roots so close to the surface, the heavy shade of the tree and the thick mulch of old fallen leaves is the cause that not much else, except early spring flowers and fungi, will grow in an established beechwood.
In winter, the Beech is easily recognised by its smooth-grey bark and its unmistakable winter twigs. These twigs are very slender for such a tall tree. They have brown bark and grow in a zig-zag fashion from one bud to the next. The buds are sharply spindle-shaped with silky orange-brown scales and look rather like straightened birds claws. One bud grows on the tip like a spear, the other buds grow alternate (one left, then one right, etc.) on the twig. Most side branches are short shoots with only 3 or 4 crowded leaves each summer.
Ancient Beech trees, as well as pollarded Beeches have a tendency to grow hollow, which is a bonus for local wildlife. Surprisingly, this doe not seem to affect the structural strength of the trunk and may even add to it. After the great storm of 1987, 800 known hollow trees were checked by a dedicated treelover and none of them had blown over (Channel 4 Tree Spirit programme).
Like the rest of the tree, the bark is quite elegant. It is not very thick and light-grey to olive-grey in colour. In older trees it may appear to be a different colour from a distance, because of lichens and green algae growing on it. It is one of the few trees, whose bark remains relatively smooth and unwrinkled, even in old age. Such marks as there are, for example occasional frost-cracks or twig-scars, are all the more easily noticed. In trees where the bark dies become a little bit more rugged with age, it can remind us of elephant skin.
The bark of the twigs is brownish with visible lenticels (breathing pores).
The leaves are 3.5 - 9 cm long and elliptical with a pointed top and a roundish-pointed base. There are 5 - 9 pairs of veins and the edges of the leaves are wavy with a 'tooth' at the end of each vein. When the leaves first begin to emerge at the end of April from the buds, they are fringed with fine downy hairs for insulation and these hairs are particularly thick on the underside of the leaf. The young leaves are very delicate and almost translucent with their freshness. They have a peculiar texture, which feels somewhere in between very thin rubber and silk. Like the buds, the leaves are arranged alternately on the twigs. Each has a short leaf stalk; at the base of which we often find two remaining pointed brown bud-scales.
At first the colour is yellow-green to light-green, but as a few weeks go by, the leaf colour darkens, the hairs are lost and the leaves turn a deep glossy green and are slightly paler underneath. In some well established trees, the leaf cover can be so dense, that you can hardly see the branches for the leaves. In autumn, the leaves take on beautiful shades of yellow, red, brown and orange. In young trees, up to about 25 years of age, or in trees, which have been kept artificially small, such as in hedges, the brown leaves can remain on the tree all winter, until in the spring, they are pushed off by the new growth.
Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree and may appear with the leaves or soon after in the beginning of May. The male flowers hang in small clusters, like a pom-pom, from a 5 cm stalk originating from the leaf-axils. The tree does not blossom every year, but when it does, there are 15 - 16 purplish-brown stamens, which are golden-tipped, growing from a bell-shaped calyx. There are no petals, but 4 - 6 united sepals, which separate into pointed ends.
The female flower is a greenish bristly oval ball, which grows alone on a much shorter and thicker stem. Usually they are found in pairs, though sometimes there may be 3 or 4 in a group. The ovaries contain two seeds, from which 2 - 6 slender red threads may be seen to be protruding from the ragged cup. If the flower is fertilised, it will swell up into a green capsule, covered with short reddish hairs. In time, the fruit hardens and its case becomes wood and brown.