The European beech, a smooth-trunked tree that can reach heights of 50 metres, is a familiar, easily identified plant across much of Britain. It has simple, alternate leaves with slightly dented margins and prominent, pinnate veins on the lower surface. In spring, the young leaves are pale green and slightly hairy, becoming dark green and hairless as they mature, producing a dense canopy during the summer. Beech buds are shaped like long, thin, reddish-brown spindles that stick out from young branches, making the tree distinctive in the winter months. The only other native British tree with long, thin buds is the hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), which has its buds pressed close to the branches. Mature beeches lose their leaves in winter but saplings or clipped trees often retain the dead leaves during winter, making them popular hedging plants.
European beech is monoecious (separate male and female flowers on the same plant), the female flowers producing triangular fruits (nuts) which are enclosed in a cupule covered in soft spines. Beech nuts are not produced every year but are important food sources for birds and mammals. In the past, humans have used beech nuts as famine food; the high level of tannins makes them unpleasant to eat regularly.
European beech is one of about 12 Fagus species found in the north temperate regions of the world. As its name suggests, European beech has a native range that extends throughout much of Europe from Sweden in the north to Italy in the south and from Turkey in the east to France in the west. The tree requires a humid environment and well-drained, fertile soil, but it is sensitive to spring frost. Consequently, beech woods are commoner in southern than northern Britain; in the north they are replaced by oak forest. The tree's British status, whether native or introduced, has been the subject of much discussion. It appears beech became part of the British flora after the formation of the English Channel, six thousand years ago. Given its environmental requirements, the native range may be restricted to parts of south east England, the Bristol Channel and East Anglia.
The most important uses that we make of beech are as landscape and timber trees. As landscape trees, many different forms have been selected including the purple-leaved copper beech, the fastigiate 'Dawyck' and contorted dwarf beeches. As timber, it is valued for its fine, pale-coloured, short-grained wood.
Bean WJ 1973. Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. Vol. 2. John Murray.
Packham JR et al. 2012. Biological Flora of the British Isles: Fagus sylvatica. Journal of Ecology 100: 1557-1608.