Beech: the nation’s second favourite tree
During Biology Week 2017, beech was voted the UK’s second favourite tree species. Pipped to the top spot by horse chestnut. Here we find out more about what makes beech so special.
Due to its dense canopy, rare shade loving plant species are associated with beech woodland, such as box, coralroot bitter-cress, and a variety of orchids including red helleborine. Beech woodland makes an important habitat for many butterflies, particularly in open glades and along woodland rides.
Beech foliage is eaten by the caterpillars of a number of moths, including the barred hook-tip and clay triple-lines, whose caterpillars only eat beech leaves. The seeds are eaten by mice, voles, squirrels and birds.
Because beech trees live for so long they provide habitats for many deadwood specialists such as hole-nesting birds and wood-boring insects. The bark is often home to a variety of fungi, mosses and lichens.
History, legend and inspiration
The beech is often thought of as the mother of the forest as she casts a protective shade with her leaves. Also referred to as the queen of the forest, the partner of the king of the forest: the oak.
In legends, beech is associated with ancient wisdom. And historically, thin slices of beech formed the first book (rather than scroll). This links with the origin of our language. The Anglo-Saxon for beech was boc, which has become book. Beech is imbued with the reverence associated with learning and the written word.
In Celtic times, the leaves of beech were used medicinally–to relieve swellings. The leaves were boiled to make a poultice. In recent history, beech tar has been used as a medicinal antiseptic for eczema and psoriasis. Today, it is also an ingredient in expectorant syrup.
Beech nuts have been used as food for pigs, poultry and deer, but should never be fed to horses. They can be used as human sustenance – roasted beech nuts prepared on an open fire and enjoyed with friends create a sense of cosy companionship. Maybe this is why the fruit is associated with improving communication between people, particularly as the nuts were often relied upon during periods of famine. Coming together to collect the nuts created a sense of community between different tribes.
How to identify beech in winter
Identifying trees in winter can be more of a challenge in winter. It’s possible to look at the bark texture, the overall shape of the tree and any clues such as fallen leaves.
- Shape: Mature beech trees grow to a height of more than 40m and develop a huge domed crown.
- Bark: The bark is smooth, thin and grey, often with slight horizontal etchings. The smooth bark makes this tree rather tactile and also a popular canvas for carved initials.
- Fallen leaves: The leaves are a simple oval shape with a stalk and a pointy tip, 4-9 cm long.
- Beech nuts: You may find the distinctive beech nut cases on the floor nearby. They are brown and have stout hair like fibres on the outer surface.
- Buds: If the tree had buds they are reddish brown, torpedo-shaped and have a distinctive criss-cross pattern. The leaf buds are borne on short stalks, sharply pointed and not pressed against the twigs.
You might check out our winter twig guide for kids.
Why does beech lose its leaves?
Deciduous trees lose their leaves in autumn so that the tree can conserve moisture over the winter months. There is less daylight and it is colder, this means the tree will not be able to photosynthesise efficiently. Without leaves trees enter a state of dormancy.
When a leaf grows in spring there is a layer of cells known as the abscission layer where the leaf stalk joins the main plant. During the summer a plant hormone known as auxin prevents any activity in the abscission layer.
As days shorten and temperatures cool, auxin production in leaves starts to decrease. As auxin falls the abscission layer becomes sensitive to ethylene, this causes the cells in the abscission layer to produce cellulose enzymes which digest the tissue connecting the leaf to the tree. The leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight.
Are trees losing their leaves later?
Yes. As a result of a changing climate the temperature tends to stay warmer for longer as we move in to autumn. This means that trees are able to keep photosynthesising for longer and are able to delay leaf abscission and dormancy.
In 2016 the Met Office looked at the last 10 years and compared them with the temperatures from 1960-90. They found that the average number of days warm enough for plant growth each year had risen by 29 days.
Help us monitor the impact of climate change on wildlife. Visit our Nature’s Calendar website and tell us when you see your first bare beech tree.