Beech

Common beech
Fagus sylvatica

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Common beech belongs to the genus Fagus and is a member of the Beech family (Fagaceae).

Common beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a large deciduous tree growing to over 40m and flowering April to May.

Lifespan: Beech can live for many hundreds of years; coppiced stands have been recorded at over 1000 years.

Characteristics

Bark is smooth, thin and grey. Buds are reddish brown, scaly, long and slender. The leaves are lime green in spring, stalked, oval and pointed at the tip with a wavy edge; 4–9cm. New leaves bear silky hairs but mature leaves are hairless and darker green.

Beech is monoecious: both male and female flowers are found on the same tree. Male ‘catkins’ are tassel-like and hang on long stalks at the end of twigs. Female flowers grow in pairs surrounded by a four-lobed scaly cup which becomes woody and encloses one or two beech nuts. Beech is wind pollinated.

Beech tree
Beech leaves

Distribution

Common beech is native to southern England and South Wales and throughout central and western Europe, and it has been introduced widely elsewhere in the UK. Charismatic stands of beech woodland or ‘hangers’ can be found in the Cotswolds, the Chilterns and on the North and South Downs.

Beech is usually found on drier or free-draining soils. It grows best on chalk, limestone, light loams and sandy soils.

Beech woodland casts deep shade and produces a dense leaf litter which often suppresses ground flora. Only specialist shade tolerant plants survive beneath the canopy.

Human value

Beech wood is a pale pinkish brown, close grained and often marked by many small brown flecks. The timber is heavy and strong but is not durable without treatment.

Modern uses include furniture, veneers, laminates and turnery. Beech wood is clean and odourless and suitable for cooking utensils such as bowls, platters and wooden spoons. It also makes good firewood.

Beech has been a valuable timber tree since the Middle Ages. In the 19th Century it was planted and grown to support the furniture making industry in the Chilterns. Local men called ‘bodgers’ who were skilled in the craft of wood turning used pole lathes to make chair legs from beech wood.

Beech provides good shelter and, as a hedge, provides a year-round screen if clipped in the summer. A warming climate may threaten stands in the south through drought but beech may see greater productivity on suitable sites in northern Britain.

Beech flowers
Beech nut

Wildlife value

Lowland beech and yew woodland is a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. The canopy can include mixtures of beech, ash, yew and whitebeam. Bluebells, wood anemone and yellow archangel are often found before the canopy is fully developed and in open sunny areas wild strawberry, sanicle, wood spurge and dog violets flourish.

Some rarer plant species are associated with beech and yew woodland such as box, red helleborine, coralroot bitter-cress and a wide variety of orchids including white, red, violet and broad-leaved helleborine and birds nest orchid. This woodland type is also important for many butterflies, such as the grizzled skipper, the Duke of Burgundy and the white admiral.

Beech seeds are enjoyed by mice, voles, squirrels and birds.

Numerous insects are supported by beech, including the barred hook-tip moth, the clay triple-lines moth and the olive crescent moth.

Because beech is so long lived it can support many deadwood species such as hole-nesting birds, bats, wood-boring insects, fungi such as the devil’s bolete, beech milk cap, beechwood sickener, beech jellydisc, beech woodwart and a variety of moss and lichen species.

Management

Beech is a shade tolerant species; cold hardy but frost tender when young. It is shallow rooted so can suffer wind throw in storms and die-back in drought conditions. Beech cannot tolerate heavy clay, peat, waterlogged or compacted soils. Its thin bark can be vulnerable to sun scorch and frost crack.

Seeds ripen September to October and can be collected then, but must be stored carefully so they don’t sweat. Seeds do not store well so must be sown the following spring in March.

Beech can be susceptible to infection by Phytophthora ramorum; although only when grown in close proximity to other infected plants. It can also be vulnerable to Phytophthora root rot causing root death, stem lesions and a decline in health.

Beech can suffer from root and butt rots such as Meripilus, Ganoderma and Armillaria and the thin bark is vulnerable to attack by grey squirrels, rabbits and wood boring insects.

Beech wood

Illustrations © Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
Woodland photograph © Forestry Commission