Beech Trees: Bold and Beautiful
The beech is one of our most handsome trees. Its massive, smooth silver-grey trunk, the purity of its spring foliage and its vivid autumn colours give it a stature few trees can match.
The beech is queen of the broadleaved trees. When it grows as an isolated tree its great limbs spread out to form a gigantic crown, but in a crowded beech wood the crowns are more compact. The trunks stand like the smooth, soaring columns of a cathedral, forced to grow tall in their constant struggle to reach the light. In these more cramped conditions most of the branches sprout from the very top of the trunk.
As summer progresses, layer upon layer of leaves cast such a deep shade that few plants can survive underneath the tree. The beech wood floor, therefore, tends to be rather bare, except for the carpet of dead beech leaves – always some of the slowest to rot and form leaf mould (humus) – and a scattering of young saplings ready to grow up into any gap created by the death or fall of the tree above.
A sprawling network of surface roots anchor the tree to the ground and, because they explore only the upper layers of the– the beech is easily toppled by strong gales. In the long drought of 1976 the beech was particularly affected because its roots could not reach down to water deep below the surface.
Native and cultivated
The beech grows as a native tree only in southern England and south Wales. Ancient beech forests still survive on the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire, in the Cotswolds and in the New Forest. Over the centuries and particularly in the last 200 years the tree has also been widely planted throughout Great Britain. Its value as an ornamental and landscape tree has been widely exploited in avenues, shelter-belts, hedges and hilltop clumps, serving to break up the bleak two seeds outline of rolling downland.
A superb beech avenue flanks the road alongside the Iron Age fort of Badbury Rings in Dorset. In summer the interlocking branches cast deep shade over the roadway and form a natural tunnel. There were originally 365 trees on one side of the road and 366 on the other; one for every day of the year; but many have been lost over the years. And at Meikleour near Perth in Scotland there is a massive beech hedge a third of a mile long and standing 28m (90ft) high — a daunting prospect for all but the most seasoned hedge-cutter.
The winter twigs of the beech are very distinctive: they are slender, smooth, and tipped with a spear-shaped bud. Additional buds are arranged alternatively along the length of the twig. Each of the long, pointed buds is wrapped in a series of overlapping protective brown scales.
The beech breaks into leaf in April. The oval leaves, tapering to a short point, are borne on short stalks. After they unfold from the buds, the fresh limp leaves are fringed with soft silvery hairs. The young foliage has a bright shining, almost translucent. Quality; but as the season advances the leaves become stiffer and turn darker green with a glossy surface sheen.
The, which are usually half hidden among the emerging foliage, are wind-pollinated. The male flowers are grouped in clusters, hanging like tassels, and pollen is blown from their bright yellow anthers. The female flowers are in pairs, bound by a collar of prickly scales forming the cupule.
After fertilisation the cupule develops into a woody husk, clad in stiff bristles, enclosing a pair of three-sided, sharp-edged nuts. In October the ripe capsule splits and the four lobes peel back to allow the nuts, known as beech-mast, to fall out. The kernels are edible and delicious.
A really heavy crop of nuts is produced about every four or five years-known as mast years; this is an important time for forest wildlife. Mammals, such as badgers and squirrels, and birds, such as nuthatches and bramblings, are particularly fond of beech nuts and a good mast year can considerably increase their chances of survival through winter when other foods become scarce. In the past it was common to turn pigs out into woodland during autumn so that they could rummage about for nuts and acorns. This practice, called pannage, is still carried out on a small scale in the New Forest.
In autumn the beech has few rivals. The tree positively glows with colour, displaying a brilliant mosaic of flaming orange, russet and gold. Gradually the foliage darkens to a dull copper colour, reflecting the tree’s gradual accumulation of waste products that form tannin. As the leaves fall, the ground beneath becomes smothered in a thick blanket of leaves. In the past mattresses used to be stuffed with dry beech leaves and they gave a comfortable, if noisy, night’s sleep. In France they were called tits de parliament-talking beds – because of the noise they made.
Life under beech
Pure beech woods are ideal places for walks on a hot summer’s day. Occasionally you see, yew and wild cherry growing among the trees, but on the whole few plants can tolerate the deep shade. Two interesting species are the yellow birds-nest and birdsnest orchid, both of which feed off rotting vegetation and therefore do not need sunlight to help make their food. All kinds of fungi flourish in the autumn, including the virulent death-cap, our most poisonous toadstool, and bracket fungi are common on tree trunks.
Mixed beech woods are generally far more hospitable to wildlife. The sudden shafts of light that beam down through gaps in the canopy of oak, sycamore or perhaps hornbeam encourage all kinds of wild flowers to grow – helleborine, wood anemone, arum lily, yellow archangel and bluebell, to mention just a few. Bramble, bracken, heather and mosses often carpet the ground, providing protection for numerous insects and birds.
In common with most of our native trees, beech was used for firewood, since (next to ash) it is widely thought to burn better than any other wood. Queen Victoria was supposed to have preferred to have wood from Burnham Beeches, near Slough, burned on the fires at Windsor Castle.
Beech trees used to be pollarded every 20 years or so. Use as building timber is limited because beech decays quickly. The wood is rather soft and springy but this has always been an advantage in furniture making.
The furniture industry has long been centred at High Wycombe in the heart of the Chilterns and. Until quite recently, the surrounding beechwoods were the hub of a flourishing cottage industry.