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The Beech

UK Garden Centre - Information about the Beech tree

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Family Fagaceae
Fagus sylvatica

To the Beech the title of “Mother of Forests” has been given, and the grower of timber freely acknowledges his heavy indebtedness to this nursing mother, for, in the words of Professor Gayer, the Bavarian forestry expert, “without Beech there can no more be properly tended forests of broad-leaved genera, as along with it would have to be given up many other valuable timber-trees, whose production is only possible with the aid of Beech.”
Quite apart from the utilitarian considerations, it would be very sad to lose the Beech, with its towering, massive shaft clad in smooth grey bark, its spreading roots above the soil, and the dense shade of its fine foliage. Fortunately for the lover of natural beauty, it is this luxuriant growth of leaves and the shade it gives that are the redeeming virtues of the Beech in the eye of the forester.
Its drip destroys most of the soil-exhausting weeds, its shade protects the soil from over-evaporation, and the heavy crop of leaves enriches it by their decomposition.
The well-grown Beech attains a height of about one hundred feet, with a girth of twenty feet. It will grow in most upland places, where the Oak thrives, though it does not need so deep a soil, and has a preference for land containing lime. Fresh mineral soils, rich in humus, are the best for it. In poor soils its growth is slow and its life is longer. It begins to bear mostly at about eighteen years of age, and thereafter gives good crops at intervals of three or five years.
In spring, just before the buds expand, the twigs of the Beech have a very distinct appearance. The buds are long and slender, placed alternately along the twig, and the brown scales retain their shape long after they have been cast off. In the bud the leaf is folded fan-wise, and the folds run parallel with the nerves. They expand into an oval, smooth-faced leaf, with slightly scooped edges, and a most delicate fringe of short gossamer, which falls off later. These leaves are rich in potash, and as they readily decay, they produce an admirable humus. In sheltered places the leaves, turned to a light ruddy-brown colour, are retained on the lower branches until cast off by the expansion of the new buds.
In early summer, whilst the leaves are still pellucid, the shade of a big Beech is particularly inviting. Later the leaves become opaque, and their glossy surfaces throw beck the heat rays. Then the play of light upon the great mass of foliage is very fine; but when autumn has turned their deep green to orange and warm ruddy-brown, and they catch the red rays of the westering sun, the tree appears to be turned into a blazing fire.
The Beech flowers in April or May. The blossoms of the male flowers are gathered together in a hanging purplish-brown rounded tassel with yellow anthers. The female flowers, to the number of two, three or four, are clustered in a “cupule” of overlapping scales, like those of the Oak. But in the Beech the “cupule” becomes a bristly closed box, which afterwards opens by one end splitting into four triangular silk-hair-lined valves, which turn back and reveal the three-sided, sharp-edged “mast”. This “mast” was formerly a very valuable product of the Beech-woods, when herds of swine were turned in to feed upon the fallen Beech-nuts. Beech-mast is still a good food eagerly taken by such woodland creatures as deer, badgers, squirrels and dormice.
The vitality of the Beech is so high that frequently the bole divides at its upper part into several trunks, which rise straight up, and each attains the dimensions of a complete tree. Often such a tree stands on a sandy bank, and seems in imminent danger of toppling over, but its uprightness secured it against strain, and the roots that it sent down the steep sides of the bank have thickened into strong props.
As the value of the Beech as a nurse for other trees, and its frequent use for that purpose, have been mentioned, it should also be stated that it is a powerful competitor with other trees, and if these are left to fight their own battles unaided, the Beech will be the conqueror. John Evelyn pointed out, over two centuries ago, that where mixed woods of Oak and Beech were left to themselves, they ultimately became pure Beech woods. The Beech appears to gain this advantage through rooting in the surface soil, and, exhausting it of feed elements, suffers none to penetrate to the lower strata, where the Oak has its roots.
The Copper Beech which is so effectively used for ornament in parks and gardens is merely a variety of the Common Beech, and all the examples in cultivation are believed to be “sports” from the purple variety, which itself was a natural sport discovered in a German wood more than a hundred years ago.


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