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Beech forest floor, Luis Cardoso, Unsplash

The Queen of All Trees…

Our tree correspondent, the aptly named Joan Taylor-Rowan, rings in the spring with the majestic beech tree.

Latin name: Fagus sylvatica
Common name: European beech
Location: St Helen’s Wood near the pond.

Paris in the spring may be nice enough, but as far as I’m concerned there is no place more magical at this time of year than a beech forest. Pierced by shafts of sunlight, the dappled green leaves and the glint of copper from the previous year’s fall, suffuse the forest with a luminous glow. You almost expect Pan to appear playing his pipes with a couple of big-eyed fawns frolicking behind him.

Michael Held, Unsplash

The beautiful beech Fagus Sylvatica is considered the queen of all trees – partner to the kingly oak. According to tree expert Dr Owen Johnson, there is a good area of beech woodland around the woodland pond in the middle of St Helens Woods. This includes one very old beech which is the biggest in Hastings. Although beeches are deciduous, they hold on to their copper-gold autumn leaves until the new spring ones appear – this is called marcescence. Because of this, they are often used as hedging, providing  privacy all year and a sheltered habitat for birds. Beech trees can grow to more than 40m – Britain’s tallest native tree is a 44m, 200-year-old beech which can be found at the Devil’s Dyke Estate in West Sussex.

 

So how do you recognise a beech tree? The mature tree has a large rounded crown that begins quite low down on the trunk rather like a child’s drawing of a tree. The grey bark is thin so if it is defaced with initials, or love hearts, it struggles to heal. The roots are shallow and often quite visible. The brown, torpedo-shaped leaf buds open to reveal oval leaves the colour of lime Starburst sweets. The leaves have a pointed tip and wavy edge and when young are fringed with white hairs, (the hornbeam has similar-shaped leaves but they have serrated edges which helps to distinguish them).

New beech leaves

As the summer progresses beech leaves darken and the hairs disappear.  It’s a monoecious – long male catkins and cup-shaped female flowers are found on the same tree, and after wind-pollination, the female flower hardens to become a case for beech nuts – known as beechmast. The case is a small brown spiky spiky oval- and the nuts inside have a distinctive three-sided shape, each one about the size of a small bean. Squirrels, birds and mice all feast on them and you will find the empty cases scattered over the forest floor in the autumn.

Beech case and nuts (beechmast)

The nuts of the beech tree have been used as a source of food since ancient times – the Greeks believed them to be the first foods eaten by humans. They were also fed to cattle and pigs. The high fat content meant they could be pressed for oil and even made into beechnut butter. This product was invented and patented here in Britain, in the reign of George I, and although it has now disappeared from the British diet it is still made in parts of rural USA.  Beechnuts are still  roasted and ground for use as a coffee substitute, especially in France. But the beech nuts do not appear in quantity until the trees are at least 40 years old. Although they have been an important part of the diet in hard times, saving communities from starvation and providing a useful snack for hungry wayfarers, they can be toxic if eaten in large quantities. Other parts of the tree  have been valued as part of nature’s medicine cabinet – the astringent bark as a poultice for skin ailments, and tar from the timber, as an antiseptic.

Because of the dense leaf litter under beeches, many flowers struggle to grow which is why the forest floor of a beechwood can seem bare, but don’t be fooled, it attracts rarer shade-loving plants such as box, bittercress, coralroot and a variety of orchids, including red helleborine. The tree supports fungi, moss and lichens – the dead wood is particularly relied on by the bearded tooth fungus – a species under threat. Moth caterpillars such as the barrel-hook-tip, feed on beech leaves, and hole-nesting birds, find homes in the venerable trunks.

Beech timber is used both as a fuel and for furniture, including drums, chairs and cooking utensils. It was chosen as the wood for drinking bowls in ‘happy times’, because it was associated with peace and harmony. As someone with no sense of direction, I was thrilled to discover that no harm could come to a lost traveller if they sheltered under a beech tree and even more reassuringly, that prayers said beneath it, went straight to heaven. So revered was this holiest “Queen of Trees”, that slivers of beechwood were carried as talismans to bring luck.

Had I been living in Anglo-Saxon times, I might be writing this on a beechwood writing tablet – the Anglo-Saxon word boc means both book and beech. With sustainability the latest buzzword,  there has been an increased use of cellulose derived from beech wood pulp in textile production.  Its used to make a type of rayon called modal – which you will find included on the labels of many, many fashion items.

Best of all, you can make an alcoholic drink from the leaves – oh and a salad too. Now is the time to judiciously harvest young beech leaves for your next dinner party starter. I just nipped out and did a taste test for you, and I can’t say I’ll be giving up rocket any time soon, but they are soft and slightly sweet, and very Masterchef. Now to the important information – the leaves can be used to make  Beech Leaf Noyeau, a spring version of Sloe Gin which I am definitely going to try. This originated in the Chilterns where large plantations of beech were planted in 18th and 19th centuries to provide timber for furniture production. This recipe comes from Roger Philips book, “Wild Food.”

Beech Leaf Noyau

You will need:

  • 700ml (bottle) Gin
  • 400ml (approx) of beech leaves stripped from the branch
  • 225g of white sugar
  • 200ml brandy
  • 300ml water

The method is very simple:

Place the leaves in a jar and cover with the gin. Leave for 3-4 weeks, then strain off the infused liquid. Make a syrup to add to the beech gin by boiling the water and dissolving the sugar. Let it cool. Then mix together with the gin and additional brandy. This process has double the volume, so you will end up needing two bottles to contain the resulting liqueur.

Finally for those Battle of Hastings nerds – I found a wonderful site which catalogues the trees embroidered into Bayeux Tapestry and suggests that some of them are beech trees with their beech nut cases still attached! Beech Trees in the Bayeux Tapestry: an Ecological Perspective. As King Harold may have said, ‘We’ll fight them in the beeches.’

You can read more of Joan Taylor-Rowan’s tree features by looking through our Green Times section.

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Posted 10:31 Monday, Apr 25, 2022 In: Green Times

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