Common Beech – Fagus sylvatica



Also called the ‘European Beech’, these are immense deciduous trees which can grow up toa  height of 40m (131ft), and which provide one of the most beautiful autumn spectacles when its leaves turn a bright golden-yellow. They have broad, rounded crowns. These towering trees can have huge overhanging, arching boughs if given the space to grow. In closely wooded areas they will grow with columnar straight boles with few branches in a bid to reach the light. The bark is usually grey and smooth, but may also be ridged and rougher. The smoother bark holds centuries old ‘graffiti’, for it is soft and easy to carve into. The leaves are up to 10cm long, dark green and are oval and pointed, and give a beautiful show of autumn colours. The leaves take a long time to rot down and greatly improve the fertility of the soil, and often beech woods have thick carpets of leaves which hinders growth of other plants beneath, except for some orchids. The white flowers produce beechnuts (beechmast) enclosed in a prickly case, and are an important woodland food source for birds and mammals. It flowers from April to May, and fruits September to November. The Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’),  is a mutation turning the leaves dark purple. Also compare the Fern-leaved Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’), which has very interesting deeply cut leaves. Beech trees can live for 300 years or more.

Found in woodland, parks and large estates. A native species, it is common on chalky soils, and ranges south-east and mid England. Beeches can be giants, towering over other trees, and they can live up to 300 years and over. However, because of their heavy, bulky mass and because they tend to grow in weak structured, chalky soils, they suffer greatly from windfall in storms and high winds. The great storm of 1987 which swept across southern England bought down many thousands of mature trees. Once thought to have been bought over by the Romans, however pollen dating suggests they have been in Britain since the last ice age.

The timber makes beautiful furniture, it is used for kitchen utensils like spoons, tool handles and tools, and sports equipment. It also makes an excellent fuel for burning, and is used to smoke herrings.