Beech (Fagus) is a genus of ten species of deciduous trees in the family Fagaceae, native to temperate Europe, Asia and North America.
The leaves of beech trees are entire or sparsely toothed, from 5–15 cm long and 4–10 cm broad. The flowers are small single-sex (monoecious), the female flowers borne in pairs, the male flowers wind-pollinating catkins, produced in spring shortly after the new leaves appear. The bark is smooth and light gray. The fruit is a small, sharply three–angled nut 10–15 mm long, borne singly or in pairs in soft-spined husks 1.5–2.5 cm long, known as cupules. The nuts are edible, though bitter (though not nearly as bitter as acorns) with a high tannin content, and are called beechmast.
Beech grows on a wide range of soil types, acid or basic, provided they are not waterlogged. The tree canopy casts dense shade, and carpets the ground with dense leaf litter, and the ground flora beneath may be sparse.
In North America, they often form Beech-Maple climax forests by partnering with the Sugar Maple.
The southern beeches Nothofagus previously thought closely related to beeches, are now treated as members of a separate family, Nothofagaceae. They are found in Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, New Caledonia, Argentina and Chile (principally Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego).
The beech blight aphid (Grylloprociphilus imbricator) is a common pest of beech trees. Beeches are also used as food plants by some species of Lepidoptera (see list of Lepidoptera that feed on beeches).
Beech wood is an excellent firewood, easily split and burning for many hours with bright but calm flames. Chips of beech wood are used in the brewing of Budweiser beer as a fining agent. Beech logs are burned to dry the malts used in some German smoked beers, giving the beers their typical flavor. Beech is also used to smoke some cheeses.
Some drums are made from beech, which has a tone generally considered to be between maple and birch, the two most popular drum woods.
Also, beech pulp is used as the basis for manufacturing a textile fibre known as Modal. The wood is also used to make the pigment known as bistre.
The fruit of the beech, also called "Beechnuts" and "mast", are found in the small burrs that drop from tree in autumn. They are small, triangular, and edible, with a bitter, astringent taste.
Beech was a common writing material in Germanic societies before the development of paper. The Old English bōc and Old Norse bók have the primary sense of beech, but a secondary sense of book, and it is from bōc that the modern word derives. In modern day German, this connection is even more apparent, with the word for 'book' being 'das Buch' and 'Buche' for beech tree.
As an ornamental
The beech most commonly grown as an ornamental tree is the European Beech (Fagus sylvatica), widely cultivated in North America as well as its native Europe. Many varieties are in cultivation, notably the weeping beech F. sylvatica 'Pendula', several varieties of Copper or purple beech, the fern-leaved beech F. sylvatica 'Asplenifolia', and the tricolour beech F. sylvatica 'roseomarginata'. The strikingly columnar Dawyck beech (F. sylvatica 'Dawyck') occurs in green, gold and purple forms, named after Dawyck Garden in the Scottish Borders, one of the four garden sites of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.
The European species, Fagus sylvatica, yields a utility timber that is tough but dimensionally unstable. It weighs around 720 kg per cubic metre and is widely used for furniture framing and carcass construction, flooring and engineering purposes, in plywood and in household items like plates, but rarely as a decorative timber. Timber can be used to construct chalets, houses and log cabins.
In the British Isles
Beech was a late entrant to Great Britain after the last glaciation, and may have been restricted to basic soils in the south of England. The beech is classified as a native in the south of England and as a non-native in the north where it is often removed from 'native' woods. Large areas of the Chilterns are covered with beech woods, which are habitat to the Common Bluebell and other flora. The Cwm Clydach National Nature Reserve in southeast Wales was designated for its beech woodlands which are believed to be on the western edge of their natural range in this steep limestone gorge.
Beech is not native to Ireland; however, it was widely planted from the 18th Century, and can become a problem shading out the native woodland understory. The Friends of the Irish Environment say that the best policy is to remove young, naturally regenerating beech while retaining veteran specimens with biodiversity value.
There is a campaign by Friends of the Rusland Beeches and South Lakeland Friends of the Earth launched in 2007 to reclassify the beech as native in Cumbria. The campaign is backed by Tim Farron MP who tabled a motion on 3 December 2007 regarding the status of beech in Cumbria.
Today, beech is widely planted for hedging and in deciduous woodlands, and mature, regenerating stands occur throughout mainland Britain below about 650 m. The tallest and longest hedge in the world (according to the Guinness World Records) is the Meikleour Beech Hedge in Meikleour, Perth and Kinross, Scotland.
Scandinavia and northern border
The common European beech (Fagus sylvatica) grows naturally in Denmark and southern Sweden up to about the 57:th - 59:th northern latitude. The most northern known naturally growing (not planted) beech trees are found in a few very small forests around the city of Bergen on the southern west coast of Norway with the North Sea nearby. Near the city of Larvik is the largest naturally occurring beech forest in Norway. Planted beeches are grown much further north along the Norwegian coast. As a naturally growing forest tree, it marks the important border between the European deciduous forest zone and the northern pine forest zone. This border is important for both wildlife and fauna and is a sharp line along the Swedish western coast, which gets broader toward the south. In Denmark and the most southern Swedish county, Skåne, it's the most populous of all forest trees.
1. ^ A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Second Edition (1916), Blōtan-Boldwela, John R. Clark Hall
Margaret G. Thomas and David R. Schumann. 1993. Income Opportunities in Special Forest Products—Self-Help Suggestions for Rural Entrepreneurs. Agriculture Information Bulletin AIB?666, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, DC
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