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WILDLIFE OF NORTHERN ENGLAND

Introducing the Beech Tree Fagus sylvatica

Beech trees belong to the family Fagaceae and the Order Fagales, placed in the Genus Fagus. They are native to temperate Europe, Asia and north America.

In England it is though that the beech are only truly native in the southern counties where it thrives on basic soils. Here in the north of England the beech is a common tree being ancestors of trees planted in parks and gardens, woodland and a result of natural regeneration. In parks and gardens there are many species that have been cultivated for decorative purposes such as the copper beech and for hedging. Other cultivars available from nurseries include- Fagus crenata-the Japenese beech. F. grandiflora-the American beech and F.lucida - the shining beech.

The beech is an elegant tree and being deciduous changes with the seasons and is one of our most beautiful of autumn trees displaying a tapestry of gold and bronze before they fall. {incidentally I like prefer the American term for Autumn  " The Fall" a much more apt description for this time of the year } 

Description of the beech tree.

The tree can attain the height of 40m and may live for up to 250 years. The trunk which is straight and slender at first becomes a sigificant size, cylindrical with uplifted spreading boughs and branches as it matures. The bark is grey with smooth brownish scales. It has a characteristic domed outline with mighty spreading boughs.

Beech tree in summer.

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Beech trunk winter

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Beech foliage, flowers and fruit.

The leaves are shiny green above and below with a wavy margin and prominent veins. When young in spring they are pale green and covered in fine silky hairs at first which soon drop off. During summer the leaves are a much darker green and much harder in texture. The leaves are 5-15cm long and 4-10cm broad. Not many trees can compare with the majestic beech in full foliage where it has long been admired for its stately form.

FLOWERS--- The beech has separate male and female flowers produced early in the summer. The male flowers are of a greenish yellow covered by a hairy down and they are borne on short stalks. The female flowers are reddish in colour and enclosed in small green cup-like structures on very short stalks.

FRUITS---Develop inside spiky cases which split open four ways when the ripe to release the triangular shaped nuts. Collectively they are known as beech mast.  These fruits supply many animals and birds throughout the coldest winter months. These include such creatures as the great tit, nuthatch, brambling, and chaffinch, grey squirrel, wood mice, bank voles and dormice all take advantage of the triangular nuts. In common with other fruiting trees beech tend to produce mast in great numbers one year and then have a "rest" year, although even in this "rest" year some mast will be evident. Every five years or so the tree may well produce a glut of mast.

ROOT SYSTEM------ The root system of the beech tree tend to spread out just below the surface of the soil and tend not to penetrate deeply as many other trees. Hence the beech is vulnerable in high winds when many may topple. Many types of fungi are associated with the beech tree which grow on living and fallen trees. 

New young foliage in spring 

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Life cycle of the Beech tree.

The dormant winter buds of the beech tree are easily identified being narrowly bullet shaped and from the fact that they stand out away from the twig at right angles. the buds respond to the call of spring being triggered into life by the lengthening day light and the warmer temperatures. leaf burst occurs each season during April. Locally they are very precise occurring between the 25th and the 28th of the month, rarely being earlier or later than this. With climate change I suppose it will occur earlier as the years progress, it will be interesting to see if this is so in the future.

The canopy in summer is dense and cooling, indeed, only the yew and the holly produce a deeper shade. The only flora that survives in this type of shade during the summer months are harts tongue fern, other species of fern and as previously mentioned fungi.

it is during the summer that the tree stores up all the energy required for next years growth. The amount of rainfall will determine how many leaves will occur in the winter buds.

The wood of beech is prone to rot but is frequently employed in furniture making for flooring, staircases, and many more products for internal use. Unless as is the case with railway sleepers it is covered in tar, it is of little use against the elements. When the beech falls in woodland it becomes a valuable habitat for many invertebrates for food and shelter. 

 Top The beautiful autumn colours beginning to show. Middle-- the autumn colours of fallen leaves. Bottom- The winter buds of the beech tree are narrowly bullet shaped.

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Medicinal and culinary uses

The nuts are edible although they are only small and quite a few would be needed to make a substantial snack. Deer are said to be fond of foraging on beech mast.  young fresh leaves in spring were utilised in the making of a potent beer. The same was once added to salads.

Medicinally it was oil extracted from the nuts and associated tar which was used in preparations for afflictions such as bronchitis and externally as an application to cure various skin diseases. However, it is not recommended for home made preparations. 

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