Traditional and Modern Use of Beech

The beech belongs to the same family as the oak and chestnut – Fagaceae.

Its species name of F. sylvatica refers to the tree’s woodland habitat.

There are differences of opinion about its arrival in Britain.

Some sources lean heavily on the report of the Gallic wars in De Bello Gallico by Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) who said there were no beech trees in Britain and that the beech must have been introduced during the Roman occupation.

Other sources suggest that Caesar did not see enough of the British Isles to know any better.

Archaeological finds of beech pollen in peat deposits suggest that beech trees arrived in Britain long before the Romans did.The story of beech includes more than 100 uses for its wood, bark, leaves, flowers and nuts.

If you can’t find a use for beech in your home and garden, then simply enjoy its decorative features in parks and remember to appreciate its shade in summer.

Be warned, the beech is easily displeased, so mind your language and don’t swear lest the tree drop a branch.

Scientific name: Fagus sylvatica
Family: Fagaceae

How to Use Beech

An ancient Greek belief is that beechnuts, called ‘mast’, were the first food eaten by humans and thus, the name Fagus is derived from the Greek phago, meaning ‘to eat up’; other sources suggest this refers to the fondness of pigs for beechnuts.

Tastes change, however. Beech mast has been largely recognised as a ‘famine food’.

Evelyn said mast fed the poor but warned against eating the nuts raw:

“We must not omit to praise the mast, which fats our swine and deer, and hath in some families even supported men with bread…But one has to be careful with them, for they are toxic to some people”.

The 17th-century scholar Abraham Munting wrote:

“In our regions this tree was only grown for its fruit, which is still being used as a source of food for the poor, as in the times of our forefathers, before they knew about grain and the baking of bread.”

De Cleene and Lejeune comment:

“Since the consumption of raw beech nuts is a problem for humans, one can only assume that the toxins were neutralised in some way. One hypothesis is that the meal made from the nuts was boiled or baked.”

An oil can be extracted from beech nuts, and in some countries is considered to rival that of a high quality olive oil. It is used in salads, for frying or made into beechnut butter.

Beechwood is used to smoke foods, and held in high esteem as one of the best woods for smoking foods.

It is used to smoke Idiazabal; a sheep’s milk cheese from the Basque region of Spain.

The young, translucent leaves can be eaten raw in salads, and they are used to make Noyau, a potent beech liqueur.

Toxicity, Contraindications & Side Effects of Beech

Researchers De Cleene and Lejeune dispute the ancient claim that beechnuts can be used as food or medicine, because of the harmful substances they contain.

“Serious incidents of poisoning are known, which are suspected of having been the result of the victim eating fewer than fifty beechnuts.”

Beech Recipes

9 thoughts on “Traditional and Modern Use of Beech

  1. Here in Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada, “Winter Beech” was used by some traditional Mi’kmaq medicine makers to treat TB (tuberculosis). The winter beech were simply those beech branches or trees that retained their dry leaves during the winter season. The beech I am referring to is Fagus grandifolia, known as American Beech. The leaves and bark are antibacterial. I’ve used it against colds, as well, and to clean wounds. Blessings!

  2. I have fond memories of picking up and nibbling raw beech nuts on the way home from school. Our parents told us not to eat many at once. Last year I found a beech tree nearby and picked up the strewn seeds. We used them as snack (only nibbling a few at the time) and had no health problems at all. Last fall I tried your aged beech leave tea and liked it as much as I like the young sourly ones. Thanks for the info!

  3. BEECH
    {OE ‘bece’, related to Old Norse ‘bok’; Anglo Saxon ‘boc’ = beech tree and book, the latter referring to the use of the wood for runic texts1; Old High German ‘buohha’, Middle Dutch ‘boeke’, Latin ‘fagus’ = beech, Greek ‘phegus’ = edible oak}

    A prickly bur, thick, 4-valved, splitting nearly to the base when ripe; nut sharply triangular, sweet and edible though rather astringent on the tongue.

    Beech wood was used in the manufacture of drinking bowls in ‘happy times’:

    “No wars did men molest,
    And only Beechen bowls were in request”.

    Indigenous to England but was introduced to Scotland by the Romans. The beech was one of the first trees to populate Britain in the Cretaceous Period (135 million years ago). It was gathered and eaten at many European Neolithic sites c.4000 BC.
    Virgil refers to “shadowy beeches” in his book ‘Culex’. Beech ash was included in the 1st Century Gallic Soap, a crude detergent used for washing clothes.
    In 1713 its oil was first extracted in England where it was suggested it be used as a
    replacement for olive oil. Beechnut Butter, still made in some rural parts of the USA has vanished from the British diet, though a patent for its manufacture was recorded during the reign of George I. A potent liqueur Beech Leaf Noyeau which originated in the Chilterns, was first made there when in the 18th and 19th Centuries large plantations of beech were established to service the chair-making industry. Having a slightly oily taste, it resembles sake.

  4. I’ll add myself to the list of people who can freely eat raw beechnuts and experience no ill effects. I don’t dispute that it can be a problem for some, but I wonder if those people are the exception, rather than the rule. Either way, I count myself fortunate, as I find the flavour most pleasing.

  5. My dog snuffles for beech nuts and eats them. He doesn’t like the fresh green ones…only the sun dried old ones. That is why I am researching on your site, to see whether beech nuts will hurt him.
    He loves them and will spend ages like a little truffle pig hunting them out. He never manages to find more than a few that are ‘just right’, so he probably only eats 6 a day maximum. It has never had any ill effects that I have noticed and has a lovely nature. I wonder if he is self medicating as dogs do with grass, or whether he just likes them as they are a source of fat. He does tend to eat most anything, but when i cracked open a fresh green one from the tree, he did not want to eat that one. Interesting. I am going to try one now, especially after reading your info. Is my dog a piglet or a wise old soul who knows that these nuts have deep roots in healing???Any ideas?

  6. I have huge copper beech tree in my front garden in Surrey, UK and now ( mid October) THe front garden is covered with beech nuts, husks and leaves. I felt it a shame to just burn them as the seeds and husks do not compost easily so googled and found the seeds/nuts are edible.

    I will now go out try to collect some seeds and experiment by roasting and then try eating and use them ground in cooking. Hope I do not suffer from any bad reactions!!

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