Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

Beech is not truly native in this area. Only in south-east England, in south-east Wales and in Gloucestershire can it be traced back to the ice age. It was introduced into the Bristol region, but has now become well established. The name beech is derived from the German word Buche meaning ‘beech’, and also Buch meaning ‘book’. In the middle ages when books were first written, in Germany they were bound between beech boards. The tree is still recalled in place names that begin in ‘Buck’ as in Buckingham. The scientific name Fagus is derived from the Greek phagein ‘to eat’. The seed or ‘mast’ was a source of food, indeed ‘mast’ is derived from the German ‘to eat’, masten.

Beech is shallow rooted, and for this reason it wilts quickly in dry weather, and it is also easily blown over in strong winds. Trees older than about 150 years are therefore unusual. The foliage is very dense, and few plants are able to survive under a dense stand. In winter it may be identified by its characteristic torpedo-shaped buds and by its smooth bark. Like oak, also in the Fagaceae, juvenile beech plants keep their leaves during the winter, and together with its tolerance to clipping, this makes beech useful for hedging.

Furniture, ice-lollipop sticks, spoons, planes and mallets are made from beech wood, and cooking oil may be obtained from the mast. Unlike hazel, ash and lime, it does not coppice well.

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