Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
Beech is monoecious, meaning both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. In April and May the tassel-like male catkins hang from long stalks at the end of twigs, while female flowers grow in pairs, surrounded by a cup.
Credit: Ben Lee / WTML
The cup becomes woody once pollinated, and encloses one or two beech nuts (known as beechmast). Beech is wind pollinated.
WHERE TO FIND
Its natural habitat extends over a large part of Europe from southern Sweden to northern Sicily. It requires a humid atmosphere and well-drained soil. It can be sensitive to winter frost.
In the UK, common beech is only considered truly native to south-east England and south-east Wales. It grows in woods or as single trees, usually on drier, free-draining soils, such as chalk, limestone and light loams.
Beech woodland is shady and characterised by a dense carpet of fallen leaves and mast husks which prevent most woodland plants from growing. Only specialist shade-tolerant plants can survive beneath a beech canopy.
VALUE TO WILDLIFE
Due to its dense canopy, rarer plant species are associated with beech woodland, such as box, coralroot bittercress and a variety of orchids, including red helleborine. Beech woodland provides an important habitat for many butterflies, particularly in open glades and along woodland rides.
Beech foliage is eaten by the caterpillars of moths, including the barred hook-tip, clay triple-lines and olive crescent. The seeds are eaten by mice, voles, squirrels and birds.
Native truffle fungi grow in beech woods. These fungi are ectomycorrhizal, which means they help the host tree to obtain nutrients in exchange for some of the sugar the tree produces through photosynthesis.
Because beech trees live for so long, they provide gnarled and knotted 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.
Bearded tooth fungus (Hericium erinaceus) is a species of conservation concern that relies on beech woods in the south of England. It grows on the deadwood of fallen trees and on the trunks and large branches of standing trees, especially old, veteran or ancient individuals.
Beech timber is suitable for a variety of purposes, including fuel, furniture, cooking utensils, tool handles and sports equipment. The wood burns well and was traditionally used to smoke herring. The edible nuts, or masts, were once fed to pigs, and in France the nuts are still sometimes roasted and used as a coffee substitute. The young, fresh, green leaves can be nibbled raw. Beech makes a popular hedging plant. If clipped it doesn't shed its leaves, and creates a year-round dense screen, which provides a great habitat for garden birds.