Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

KingdomPlantae
PhylumAnthophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderFagales
FamilyFagaceae
GenusFagus (1)
SizeHeight: up to 40 m (2)

Widespread and very common (2).

The beech is a magnificent large tree with a broad crown, and very smooth greyish bark. There are typically many branches, which may arch downwards. The dark green leaves are oval to elliptical in shape, terminating in a point; they have wavy edges, which are fringed with hairs in young leaves. The male flowers occur in drooping clusters; in contrast, female flowers occur in pairs on short stalks (2). The nuts (known as 'mast') also occur in pairs, in a spiny husk consisting of four lobes (3).

Although often said to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, the discovery of beech pollen dating from 6000 BC in Hampshire proves that this tree is indeed a native; it was present in Britain when the country became an island after the Ice Age. It spread naturally northwards to a line drawn between the Wash and the Bristol Channel, and was planted further north (4). This tree is known throughout much of Europe. (5).

This species is found in a wide range of soil types and habitats, but prefers chalky soils and limestone (6). It avoids low-lying areas, where the soil may become water-logged (7).

Beech trees begin to produce leaves in March or April, and flower in April or May (6). The oil-rich nuts are produced in September and October, and were once used to feed livestock; pigs and cattle were released into beech woodlands to allow them to feed on the 'mast' (4). Nuts are also eaten by chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs), wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) and other birds (7). The leaves take quite some time to rot fully, and beech woods are carpeted with a deep layer of leaf litter, which prevents other plants from becoming established. Beech woods are consequently somewhat devoid of woodland flowers and other understory plants (3).

There is very little folklore or local custom associated with the beech. It is chiefly admired as a landscape tree for its grace and elegance, and has been used for firewood, as a fuel for ironworks and the glass industry, and by the eighteenth century it began to be used for timber (4). Many beeches were pollarded, which produced thin poles of wood out of the reach of browsers such as deer (7).

This tree is not threatened.

As this species is common and widespread, conservation action is not necessary.

For more on British trees see: The Tree Council:
http://www.treecouncil.org.uk
and British Trees.com:
http://www.british-trees.com

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact: arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. National Biodiversity Network Species Dictionary (Feb 2003): http://www.nhm.ac.uk/nbn/
  2. Humphries. C.J., Press, J.R. & Sutton, D.A. (2000) Hamlyn guide to trees of Britain and Europe. Hamlyn, London.
  3. Press, B. (1996) Collins Wild Guide: Trees. Harper Collins Publishers, London.
  4. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London
  5. European Forest Genetic Resources Programme http://www.ipgri.cgiar.org/networks/euforgen/Networks/viewreport.asp?Network=&onlyCountry=&freetext=Fagus%20sylvatica&genusspecies=&btnSubmit1=Submit
  6. British Trees beech (Feb 2003): http://www.british-trees.com/guide/beech.htm
  7. Godet, J. (1986) Collins photographic guide to the trees of Britain and northern Europe- a guide to identification by leaves and needles. William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, London.