There can be fewer more pleasant places to be on a crisp, bright autumn day than a beech wood. The sunlight seems to sparkle and fizz as it falls through the lightening canopy on to leaves the colour of burnished copper, which contrast perfectly with the tree trunks’ smooth, tactile grey bark. It’s almost the epitome of autumn. In spring, too, there’s hardly any tree, except perhaps the silver birch, that has such vibrant, sparkling, thoroughly spring-like leaves. Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century English clergyman and naturalist, described it in The Natural History of Selborne as ‘the most lovely of all forest trees, whether we consider its smooth rind or bark, its glossy foliage, or graceful pendulous boughs’.
The common or European beech (Fagus sylvatica ) is one of our largest trees: it can grow to 40 metres tall, with a spread of 30 metres, and its trunk can potentially reach seven metres in circumference. It’s also very long-lived, reaching maturity at about 120 years of age. It is not a native Irish tree, however: it was originally introduced here in the eighteenth century.
Its very broad canopy makes it a born survivor, even something of a bully: this is what enables it to prevent other saplings, such as birch or oak, maturing under its shade. For this reason, you’ll find very little undergrowth in a beech wood – apart from fungi, which love the damp humus the fallen leaves produce – and it’s the perfect wood in which to indulge your inner child by kicking up the autumn leaves.
Another manifestation of the inner child is the graffiti which from time immemorial has been carved into beech trunks – their smooth, even bark is just too appealing to resist, it seems. This practice was known in Roman times, when young lovers would carve their names or messages of affection into the bark. There’s even a Roman proverb relating to this – Crescunt illae; crescunt amores (As these letters grow, so may our love ) – and in Europe and America beech trees have been found with graffiti dating back to Victorian times.
Life’s a Beech
While beech trees do not occupy anything like the place in our mythology and traditions as do, for example, the oak and the hawthorn, it still has a respectable pedigree in that arena, particularly in southern Europe. In ancient Greece the beech was sacred to Zeus, while in ancient Rome it had a strong connection with Diana, the goddess of hunting who was also associated with woodland and with the moon; and in both early Greek and Roman mythology the beech was a symbol of wisdom and learning. It was once used to make writing tablets, and very fine slivers of beech were even formed into the pages of books. The word ‘book’ may even be derived from the Anglo-Saxon bok (beech ). This connection between the beech and the written word (or at least the vehicle for the written word ) may also be seen in the German words Buche (beech ) and Buch (book ), and in the Swedish bok (which means both beech and book ).
Beech timber makes particularly good firewood, since it burns steadily and produces good heat. Its smoothness and pale colour makes it desirable for making furniture, toys, veneers and tool handles; and because it’s odourless it’s useful for making kitchen utensils. In times past the three-sided nuts, or mast – which only appear every five years or more – were used to graze cattle and pigs. The nuts are actually edible, though extremely bitter, and in Germany during the First and Second World Wars they were used to make oil for lamps and cooking.