Beech

Fagus sylvatica

Beech is one of our most distinctive and handsome trees, and also an important timber producer. It is very easy to recognise, for only one other tree, the hornbeam, is at all like it Beech buds are very long and slender, with pointed brown scales and sharp tips; they are set alternately at the angles of the rather zig-zag twigs. These twigs are rather hairy, as our sketch shows. The bark of a beech tree, even when it has reached great age and size, is nearly always smooth, and it is a characteristic metallic grey colour. Its smoothness tempts people to carve their initials on it, which gives unsighdy results though it rarely harms the tree.

Beech can vary considerably in form. Tall woodland trees grow up as one of a group, and in their struggle for light each forms a long, upright trunk, shedding lower side branches as they become overshaded. Its form will attract a timber merchant though he will have to fell it with great care, as it has forked at the top; if one arm of the fork strikes die ground before the other, the whole stem may be split and so ruined. By contrast, the open-

F1GURE 34

Winter twig and buds of beech (life size).

Right: a single pointed bud. with its papery brown scales, enlarged (X2i).

grown beech tree (Plate 16) has been allowed to spread its branches as far out as it wished. Some trees may even be topped or 'pollarded' to discourage upward growth. Such broadly-spreading beeches are very picturesque, and give much shade and shelter, but the short bole is useless as timber.

Beech leaves have a simple aval shape, with clearly-marked parallel veins and slighdy wavy edges. When they first open they are hairy, and a pair of leafy stipules is seen at the base of each leaf; later the stipules fall away and the hairs become indistinct. Beech leaves are glossy dark green above, and paler below; they turn to bright orange and brown shades before they fall in autumn. Fallen leaves persist on the forest floor for many months before they decay to form a rich brown leaf-mould. On young beech trees, and on clipped hedges, faded leaves hang on right through the winter, and do not fall until spring; this makes beech hedges both attractive and valuable for shelter.

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figure 36

Flowering twig of bttxh )n May. showing newly-opened leaves and stipules (life size). Male catkins, which hang down, hold numerous male flowers like that seen lower left [X6). A hairy female catkin, standing upright, is seen in the centre, complete with bracts.

Lower right female catkin with all bracts removed, showing two flowers» each having three styles, figure 35

Beech seedling (Xj), figure 36

Flowering twig of bttxh )n May. showing newly-opened leaves and stipules (life size). Male catkins, which hang down, hold numerous male flowers like that seen lower left [X6). A hairy female catkin, standing upright, is seen in the centre, complete with bracts.

Lower right female catkin with all bracts removed, showing two flowers» each having three styles, figure 35

Beech seedling (Xj),

Beech catkins open in May. just after the leaves have expanded. The flowers of each sex are grouped in separate catkins on the same twig. Male catkins hang downwards on Long stalks, like tassels of golden stamens. Closer examination shows that each catkin has a few scales at the base of each cluster, and then a group of about 12 male flowers. Each male flower, as shown in the sketch, consists of about six hairy bracts united at the base into a cup, and about 10 long stamens. Male catkins fall when their pollen is shed.

Female catkins stand erect, on shorter stalks, and have the general form of a hairy cup. This bears four hairy bracts, and a very large number of smaller hairs, which possibly represent bracteoles. When all these structures are stripped away, as in the enlarged sketch, two flowers are exposed at the centre; each has a basal ovary and three distinct styles, crimson in colour. Each flower is capable of ripening three nuts, though often only one or two mature.

Beech nuts ripen in October. By then each stalk has become longer and stouter, and the four bracts have enlarged to form a hairy cupule enclosing the seeds. Each seed is triangular in cross-

section and has a hard brown husk, with a soft white kernel within. It is unusual for all the seeds to ripen and to be well-filled; in some years most of the seeds prove, on opening, to be nothing more than empty husks. Good seed crops, or 'masts' occur only every 4 or 5 years. These exceptional crops are so heavy that a high proportion of the seed escapes being eaten by the numerous creatures that relish it including squirrels, mice, pigs, pigeons, pheasants, rooks and jays. The seed lies dormant on the forest floor through the winter; it is easily stored under slightly moist conditions. After a good mast seedlings are plentiful on the forest floor, though only a small number survive,

A beech seedling has two broad fleshy seed-leaves or cotyledons. carried on a short stalk above the soil. They look quite unlike the normal foliage leaves, which follow a few weeks later. Beech remains one of our main broadleaved species of forest tree. It is the most profitable tree of any kind, broadleaved or conifer, for people to grow on chalk or limestone hills. It also thrives well on any other reasonably fertile light soiL whether it be sand or loam, anywhere on our southern hills or northern lowlands, provided drainage is good. Small trees, removed from the crop as thinnings, are only suitable for firewood or turnery, but the larger trees harvested later have a wide range of uses.

Beechwood, which is pale brown in colour, marked by many small dark brown flecks, is hard and strong, and can readily be worked in any direction. It is widely used in furniture, and joinery, as flooring blocks, and for many small objects that need a sturdy 'piece of wood.' These include bowls, platters, wooden spoons, plane blocks, mallet heads, brush backs, parts of pianos, and simple hand tools. Beechwood veneers are made up into plywood for chair-making and shop-fitting, Beechwood bent to curved shapes, after treatment with hot steam, is used in 'bent-wood' furniture.

Beech has been widely planted throughout the British Isles, and there are few estates without- a beech wood or shelterbelt The finest stands are found in the south, particularly on the limestone Cotswold Hills around Bath, and on the chalk ranges of the Chilterns, the North and South Downs, and the Downs of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset Young beech are easily raised from seed and established in the forest They benefit greatly from shelter against strong sun and frost when young, so they are often established in the light shade of birch or hazel coppice. The Copper and Purple beeches are selections made by nur-

figure 37

Fruiting twig of beech in October, showing the stalked hairy cupules that arise from each female catkin (x$l

Above: the four arms of the cupule open to reveal triangular nuts within.

serymen from a purple-leaved form, F, sylvatica 'Purpurea', first cultivated in Germany in the 18th century. Many of these are raised as seedlings, but the deepest coloured, like the cultivar 'River's Purple', are grafted. Their green colour is masked by red pigments but this has litde or no effect on their rate of growth.

The Femleaf beech, 'Asplenifolia'. and the Weeping 'Pendula' were introduced in 1826 and are often planted. The stricdy upright beech, 'Dawyck', arose in i860 and is planted in avenues or as a feature.

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  • harri paloranta
    What trees grow wellon cotswold brash?
    8 years ago

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