Beech trees are part of the Fagaceae family, a large family with over 900 species including oaks and chestnuts. There are around 10 trees in the Fagus genus. Fagus sylvatica is common around the UK and most of Europe and is considered native in southern England and non-native in the north of England.
The common Beech is easy to recognise throughout the winter and spring. It is widely planted and twigs within 3 meters of the ground retain their leaves through winter and therefore make great hedges. This also one way to identify them.
When the common beech comes into bud (mid April to the beginning of May) it has distinctive torpedo (or cigar) like buds. Just think of yourself sitting on a beach smoking a cigar as an easy way to remember this. Beech trees also have fruits in the form beech nuts which are edible and a liquor (beech leaf noyau) can be made from its leaves. Beech starts to flower between 30 and 80 years of age and the nuts are a result of the flowering process.
Unfortunately grey squirrels like to rip off the younger bark of Fagus sylvatica during their breeding season, this prevents straight growth of the tree. They can reach 40 meters in height and are one of the UK’s tallest broadleaves. However the have a short life compared with other large trees. Fagus sylvatica typically lives to 150 to 200 years but can live as long as 300 years but it is easily blown over and decays quickly. The silver-grey bark is thin but protected from the sun by a dense canopy which also shades out the competition.
The leaves are arranged alternatively and the leaves have tiny hairs around the edge. The leaves are oval in shape with rounded points at the tip of the veins, there is never any points in-between veins. There are 5-9 vein pairs on each leaf and like the leaves, the veins are in alternative pairs and never opposite. Beech trees are often confused with Hornbeam (Carpinus) as they have similar leaves and buds although the Hornbeam has catkins which flower in spring as a yellow curtain and they develop completely different looking nuts.
There are a few variations of the common beech. Fagus sylvatica Purpurea – copper beech has purple or brown leaves depending on the composition of chemicals within the leaves. It also retains some of its leaves through winter and is often used in hedges. Fagus sylvatica Zlatia – golden beech is an uncommon cultivar. It has eye-catching fresh yellow leaves which fade by mid summer. The golden beech was discovered in Serbia and the word ‘Zlatia’ comes from the Serbo-Croat for gold.