Trees – Beech / Fagus – European beach / Fagus sylvatica

Trees & Shrubs – Fagus / Beech Trees – European beech (Fagus sylvatica)

London Tree Surgeons are experienced at pruning Beech trees and caring for your tree.

More often than not we deal with beech in the form of beech hedges. hedge trimming & planting

Beech (Fagus) is a genus of deciduous trees in the family Fagaceae which includes oak, native to temperate Europe, Asia and North America. Recent classification systems of the genus recognize ten to thirteen species in two distinct subgenera, Engleriana and Fagus.

The better known Fagus subgenus beeches are high-branching with tall, stout trunks and smooth silver-grey bark. This group includes Fagus sylvatica, Fagus grandifolia, Fagus crenata, Fagus lucida, Fagus longipetiolata, and Fagus hayatae.

The classification of the European beech native to Britain, Fagus sylvatica is complex, with a variety of different names proposed for different species and subspecies within this region, for example Fagus taurica, Fagus orientalis, and Fagus moesica.

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Leaves, flowers, and fruit of Beech, the beech nut.

The European beech (Fagus sylvatica) is the most commonly cultivated, although there are few important differences between species aside from detail elements such as leaf shape. The leaves of beech trees are entire or sparsely toothed, from 5–15 cm long and 4–10 cm broad. Beeches are monoecious, bearing both male and female flowers on the same plant. The small flowers are unisexual, the female flowers borne in pairs, the male flowers wind-pollinating catkins. They are produced in spring shortly after the new leaves appear. The bark is smooth and light grey. 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 husk can have a variety of spine- to scale-like appendages, the character of which is, in addition to leaf shape, one of the primary ways beeches are differentiated. The nuts are edible, though bitter (though not nearly as bitter as acorns) with a high tannin content, and are called beechnuts or beechmast.

The name of the tree (Latin fagus, whence the species name; cognate with English “beech”) is of Indo-European origin, and played an important role in early debates on the geographical origins of the Indo-European people. Greek φηγός is from the same root, but the word was transferred to the oak tree (e.g. Iliad 16.767) as a result of the absence of beech trees in Greece.

Beech hedges

This well established beech hedge, planted over 40 years ago, shows the great advantage of using Beech over other deciduous tree species. The leaves remain even during winter giving a thick hedge year round. The leaves of the hedge changing over the year, from copper browns to greens.

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London tree surgeons beech hedge in summer


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Beech hedge in winter – LondonTreeSurgeons

Uses for Beech wood

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Beech hedge in winter LondonTreeSurgeons

Beech wood is an excellent firewood, easily split and burning for many hours with bright but calm flames. The smell of burning beech is pleasant, beech logs are burned to dry the malts used in some German smoked beers, giving the beers their typical flavour. Beech is also used to smoke Westphalian ham, various sausages, and some cheeses.

Some drums are made from beech, which has a tone between those of maple and birch, the two most popular drum woods.

The textile modal is a kind of rayon often made wholly from the reconstituted cellulose of pulped beech wood.

The European species Fagus sylvatica yields a utility timber that is tough but dimensionally unstable. It weighs about 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 wood. The timber can be used to build chalets, houses and log cabins.

Beech wood was used for the stocks of military rifles when traditionally preferred woods such as walnut are scarce or unavailable or as a lower-cost alternative.

The fruit of the beech tree is known as beechnuts or mast and is found in small burrs that drop from the tree in autumn. It is small, roughly triangular and edible, with a bitter, astringent taste. They have a high enough fat content that they can be pressed for edible oil. Fresh from the tree, beech leaves are a fine salad vegetable, as sweet as a mild cabbage though much softer in texture. The young leaves can be steeped in gin for several weeks, the liquor strained off and sweetened to give a light green/yellow liqueur called beechleaf noyau.

Beech wood tablets were a common writing material in Germanic societies before the development of paper. The Old English bōc and Old Norse bók both have the primary sense of “beech” but also a secondary sense of “book”, and it is from bōc that the modern word derives. In modern German, the word for “book” is Buch, with Buche meaning “beech tree”. In Swedish, these words are the same, bok meaning both “beech tree” and “book”. Similarly, in Russian, the word for beech is бук (buk), while that for letter (as in a letter of the alphabet) is буква (bukva).

Beech as an ornamental tree

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beech tree foliage in summer

The beech most commonly grown as an ornamental tree in London 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 Botanic Garden in the Scottish Borders, one of the four garden sites of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Europe is also home to the lesser-known Oriental Beech (F. orientalis) and Crimean Beech (F. taurica).

Copper Beech & cultivars

Since the early 19th century there have been numerous cultivars of European beech made by horticultural selection, often repeatedly; they include:

  • copper beech or purple beech (Fagus sylvatica Purpurea Group) – leaves purple, in many selections turning deep spinach green by mid-summer.
  • fern-leaf beech (Fagus sylvatica Heterophylla Group) – leaves deeply serrated to thread-like
  • dwarf beech (Fagus sylvatica Tortuosa Group) – distinctive twisted trunk and branches
  • weeping beech (Fagus sylvatica Pendula Group) – branches pendulous
  • Dawyck beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’) – fastigiate growth
  • golden beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Zlatia’) – leaves golden in spring

The following cultivars have gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit:-

  • F. sylvatica
  • ‘Dawyck’
  • ‘Dawyck Gold’
  • ‘Dawyck Purple’
  • ‘Pendula’
  • ‘Riversii’
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European Beech – Fagus – NHM LondonTreeSurgeons

Native Beech (F. sylvatica) history.

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. Some suggest that it was introduced by Neolithic tribes who planted the trees for their edible nuts. 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. (Wikipedia)

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Beech hedging by LondonTreeSurgeons

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 Guinness World Records) is the Meikleour Beech Hedge in Meikleour, Perth and Kinross, Scotland.

Beech is a genus of deciduous trees in the family Fagaceae and recent classification systems of the genus recognize ten to thirteen species in two distinct subgenera, Fagus, described above and Engleriana.

The Engleriana subgenus is found only in East Asia, and is notably distinct from the Fagus subgenus in that these beeches are low-branching trees, often made up of several major trunks with yellowish bark. Further differentiating characteristics include the whitish bloom on the underside of the leaves, the visible tertiary leaf veins, and a long, smooth cupule-peduncle. Fagus japonica, Fagus engleriana, and the species F. okamotoi, proposed by the bontanist Chung-Fu Shen in 1992, comprise this subgenus.

Research suggests that beeches in Eurasia differentiated fairly late in evolutionary history, during the Miocene. The populations in this area represent a range of often overlapping morphotypes, though genetic analysis does not clearly support separate species.

Within its family, the Fagaceae, recent research has suggested that Fagus is the evolutionarily most basal group. The southern beeches (Nothofagus genus) 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).



(Step had this to say about the Beech a century ago)

The Beech (Fagus sylvatica).

We speak of the Oak as the “Monarch of the Woods,” and to the Beech the title “Mother of Forests” has been given. To the timber-merchant the Beech has little importance, but the grower of timber freely acknowledges his heavy indebtedness to this nursing mother, for, in the words of Professor Gayer, the Bavarian forestry expert, “without Beech there can no more be properly tended forests of broad-leaved genera, as along with it would have to be given up many other valuable timber-trees, whose production is only possible with the aid of Beech.” Quite apart from utilitarian considerations, we should be very sorry to lose the Beech, with its towering, massive shaft clad in smooth grey bark, its spreading roots above the soil, and the dense shade of its fine foliage. Fortunately for the lover of natural beauty, it is this luxuriant growth of leaves and the shade it gives that are the redeeming virtues of the Beech in the eye of the forester. Its drip destroys most of the soil-exhausting weeds, its shade protects the soil from over-evaporation, and the heavy crop of leaves enriches it by their decomposition. On these points the forestry experts of to-day join hands with John Evelyn, who, nearly 250 years ago, thus referred to it—”The shade unpropitious to corn and grass, but sweet, and of all the rest, most refreshing to the weary shepherd—lentus in umbra, echoing Amaryllis with his oaten pipe.” And, again, after giving us a long catalogue of the varied uses to which Beechwood may be put, he adds—”Yet for all this, you would not wonder to hear me deplore the so frequent use of this wood, if you did consider that the industry of France furnishes that country for all domestic utensils with excellent Walnut, a material infinitely preferable to the best Beech, which is indeed good only for shade and for the fire.” In the days of open hearths and chimney corners the Beech was extensively used for fuel, and it is still reputed to make good charcoal; but to-day the chairmaker and the turner are the chief users of its wood.

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Bole or trunk of the Beech tree

The Beech well grown attains a height of about 100 feet, and a girth of 20 feet. There was, until recently, a Beech in Norbury Park, Surrey, 160 feet in height. Its branches horizontally spreading gave it a head of enormous proportions. Hooker gives the diameter of the Knowle Beech as 352 feet, which means a circumference of about as many yards. It will grow in most upland places where the Oak thrives, though it does not need so deep a soil, and has a preference for land containing lime. Fresh mineral soils, rich in humus, are the best for it. In poor soils its growth is slow and its life is longer. It begins to bear mostly at about eighteen years of age, and thereafter gives good crops at intervals of three or five years.

In spring, just before the buds expand, the twigs of the Beech have a very distinct appearance. They are long and slender, placed alternately along the twig, and the brown envelopes retain their shape long after they have been cast off. It is interesting to note how well these are mimicked by a glossy spindle-shaped snail (Clausilia laminata) that has a decided fondness for the Beech. As the snails crawl up the bole or over the moss at its base, it is not easy at a glance to say which are snails and which bud-envelopes. This is one of the protective resemblances adopted by many animals to give them a chance of eluding their natural enemies—in this case the thrush and other birds.

In the bud the leaf is folded fan-wise, and the folds run parallel with the nerves. They expand into an oval, smooth-faced leaf, with slightly scooped edges, and a most delicate fringe of short gossamer, which falls off later. These leaves Evelyn recommended as a stuffing for beds, declaring that if “gathered about the fall, and somewhat before they are much frost-bitten, [they] afford the best and easiest mattresses in the world to lay under our quilts instead of straw…. In Switzerland I have sometimes lain on them to my great refreshment.” That last clause seems to imply that the authorities at home would not allow the introduction of new-fangled bed-stuffings, but remained true to straw. These leaves are rich in potash, and as they readily decay, they produce an admirable humus. In sheltered places the leaves, turned to a light ruddy-brown colour, are retained on the lower branches until cast off by the expansion of the new buds.

In early summer, whilst the leaves are still pellucid, the shade of a big Beech is particularly inviting. Later the leaves become opaque, and their glossy surfaces throw back the heat rays. Then the play of light upon the great mass of foliage is very fine; but when autumn has turned their deep green to orange and warm ruddy brown, and they catch the red rays of the westering sun, the tree appears to be turned into a blazing fire.

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Beech tree in summer
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Beech tree in winter


The Beech flowers in April or May. The blossoms are rather more conspicuous than is the case with the Oak, for the male flowers are gathered together in a hanging purplish-brown rounded tassel with yellow anthers. The female flowers, to the number of two, three, or four, are clustered in a “cupule” of overlapping scales, like those of the Oak. But in the Beech the “cupule” becomes a bristly closed box, which afterwards opens by one end splitting into four triangular silk-hair-lined valves, which turn back and reveal the three-sided, sharp-edged “mast.” This mast was formerly a very valuable product of the Beech-woods, when herds of swine were turned in them to feed upon the fallen Beech-nuts. Agricultural methods have changed; but though our hogs are now confined in styes, and fed on a diet that more rapidly fattens, Beech-mast is still a good food eagerly taken by such woodland denizens as badgers, deer, squirrels, and dormice.

The vitality of the Beech is so high that quite frequently the bole divides at its upper part into several trunks, which rise straight up, and each attains the dimensions of a complete tree. Often such a tree stands on a sandy bank, and seems in imminent danger of toppling over, but its uprightness secures it against strain, and the roots that it sent down the steep side of the bank have thickened into strong props. Many such trees may be found along the hollow lanes in the Greensand district of Surrey, and we have more than once sheltered from a storm under their roots.

We have already mentioned the value of the Beech as a nurse for other trees, and its frequent use for that purpose, but it should also be stated that it is a powerful competitor with other trees, and if these are left to fight their own battles unaided, the Beech will be the conqueror. Evelyn saw this more than two centuries ago, and pointed out that where mixed woods of Oak and Beech were left to themselves, they ultimately became pure Beech woods. The Beech appears to gain this advantage through rooting in the surface soil, and, exhausting it of food elements, suffers none to penetrate to the lower strata, where the Oak has its roots.

A number of insects feed upon the Beech, but they are mostly more beautiful or more singular than destructive. The Copper Beech, which is so effectively used for ornament in parks, is merely a sub-variety of the Common Beech, and all the examples in cultivation are believed to be “sports” from the purple variety, which itself was a natural sport discovered in a German wood little more than a hundred years ago.

The modern word Beech is derived from the Anglo-Saxon boc, bece, beoce, which had very similar equivalents in all branches of the German and Scandinavian family, and from the fact that the literature of these people was inscribed on tablets of Beech, our word book has the same origin.