Beech - the tree

Beeches can grow to be beautiful, stately trees (up to 40m high). though they are not as long lived (as compared to oak).  The stem or bole of the tree is covered with a smooth grey bark which can develop criss-crossing ridges with age. The beech is one of our native trees, though perhaps one of the last to arrive from Europe after the last Ice Age (as suggested from pollen analysis of peat and other sediments).  Its natural distribution is to the south of a line drawn from The Wash to the The Severn. 

However, in some parts of the country, they have been planted systematically, for example, John Holliday of Staffordshire planted some 94,000 beech in 1791; and it has been used extensively in hedge laying. Its use in hedges is partly associated with the phenomenon of marcescence - the retention of 'dead' leaves throughout the winter; although beech is a deciduous tree (leaves die and are shed in winter months)

Beech leaves.

The leaves are simple (unlike those of horse chestnut or ash) and are are longer than they are wide (pointed ovals). They usually have between five and nine pairs of veins. At the end of each vein, there is a small tooth on the leaf margin.  Mature leaves have an almost corrugated or ribbed appearance, and the margin is quite wavy.  The leaves are arranged alternately along the twigs.

When the leaves are first formed, they are a light green colour but gradually darken. Likewise, initially there are small, fine hairs on the margin and underside of the leaf but these are lost as the leaf matures.

Twigs and buds.

Examination of winter twigs reveals long pointed buds, set at an angle from the twig/stem. These buds are quite long (and big in relation to the stem/twig).  They are sometimes described as copper coloured and cigar shaped. Young twigs have a slight zig-zag appearance.

Flowers and fruits.

Yellowish-green small flowers form as the leaves unfurl from the buds. Male and female flowers form on the same tree.  The male flowers form in clusters on long, pendulous stalks - with long, golden stamens but no petals.  The female flowers tend to occur in pairs, though sometimes in clusters of 3 or 4.  Each female flower has 3 carpels / ovaries which if fertilised will form (3 sided) nuts.  The fruits / nuts that form are collectively called  ‘beechmast’.  The mast takes the form of green prickly husks that contain shiny brown nuts. As the husk dries, it splits releasing the nuts.  The mature nuts may contain between 17 - 20% oil.


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