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
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.”