The European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a delightful tree, with silver-grey bark and a straight trunk. One of the extensive, worldwide Fagus family, the European Beech is slightly unusual in that its form is different if it is a solitary specimen or one which is growing, as here, in a beech wood. A solitary specimen will have a trunk that is massive and sturdy anything up to 30 feet in circumference, with only 10 to 15 feet of 'naked' trunk without any branches, and a very broad crown with dense foliage; the branches will be very long. However, a tree growing in a woodland setting will have a much more slender appearance as you can see, with branches forming a dense canopy; if beech trees are not managed they will tend to form dense woodlands, over time. This leads naturally to an environment which favors shade-loving plants such as Bluebells and Wild Garlic. As well as shade, growth of the 'understory' is inhibited by the thick layer of dead leaves which seem to be ever-present.
This last factor is due to a peculiar habit of the Beech (and a few other deciduous trees) called 'marcesence'. This involves the retention of already dead leaves in the branches, to be dropped later, unlike the normal process of the formation of an abcission layer by the tree, which, in effect severs the connection to the branch or twig. Lower branches or younger shoots seem to undergo marcesence, rather older ones. The advantages are many; retained, dead foliage make shoots - carrying tender buds -much less attractive for browsing deer, they may also protect against severe frosts and even cause a build-up of snow around the tree, which when Spring comes, will ensure an ample early water supply.
As well as dead leaves, the litter under the trees will contain beech 'mast', the fruit of the tree. Wild boar love to root for this, and in the Middle Ages the right of 'pannage' existed. This was where, under agreement with the Lord of the Manor, pigs could be driven into the forest and root for acorns, chestnuts, hazelnuts and beech mast. Usually, a 'rent' of a pig (or more) had to be rendered up for this 'right'. Pannage still exists, to this day in the New Forest in southern England. Although beech nuts may be eaten by humans it is not a good idea to eat too many, as they contain a toxin called trimethylamine, which can damage mucous membranes. especially in the intestinal tract. The concentration of trimethylamine can be reduced by roasting the nuts.
Beech makes for marvelous wood for furniture, and is close-grained, easily worked and of an attractive appearance. If steamed, it is easily bent and formed, giving rise to the elegant bent-wood chairs which were common in kitchen in England during the early part of the 20th century.
Specimens of the European Beech were often planted in the Eastern United States in parks or other settings because of their attractive shape and their long life cycle (anything up to 200 years, or more). However, in the last few years these trees in the United States have been dying at a much earlier age. This is being called European Beech Decline, and is a four stage process. First, the tree is invaded by a pathogen which occurs naturally in the soil Phytophthora citricola. This forms cancerous sores on the thin bark, which in turn attracts the Ambrosia Beetle Xylosandrus crassiusculus, because the exudate from the sores is slightly alcoholic. The Ambrosia Beetle bores into the trunk and in doing so, carried with it spores of one of the many types of Ambrosia fungi, which will grow rapidly inside the tree, causing more decay, and allowing the Ambrosia Beetles to feast on the fungal bodies. The third stage is heralded by the arrival of the Twolined Chestnut Borer Agrilus bilineatus , which attacks the tree, and caused wilted foliage, this may drop and expose the light-sensitive bark to direct sunlight. This causes the last stage, sunscald; bark thus damaged dies, and this contributes to the eventual death of the tree as a whole. Fortunately, this whole cycle can be prevented by a bi-annual application of a solution of Agri-Fos Systemic Fungicide (a mixture of mono- and di-potassium salts of phosphorous acid) on trees over 28 inches in diameter for their first 5 or 6 feet of trunk, supported by a bark penetrant.
The beech has many virtues, it is true, but whenever I walk down this particular path in South Yorkshire (6 miles from my sister's home) its ability to stimulate the memory comes to the fore, and the days of my childhood spring into sharp focus once again.