Beech

Introduction

The Beech belongs to the same family as the oak and chestnut – Fagaceae. Its species name Fagus 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, 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 drops a branch.

Scientific Name

Fagus sylvatica

Family

Fagaceae

Botanical Description

Beech trees have smooth, grey bark and bright green, oval leaves with wavy, hairy margins. The fruits contain one or two shiny, brown nuts. Male flowers are numerous and tassel-like, and female flowers are displayed in pairs of erect clusters. The tree grows to about 40-140 ft.

Status

Deciduous. Native.

Habitat and Distribution

Damp, heavy soils of forests, parks, avenues, and hedges.

Parts Used for Food

Nuts/mast, leaves.

Harvest Time

Spring to autumn.

Food Uses of Beech

The ancient Greeks believed that beechnuts or ‘mast’ were the first food eaten by humans. The nuts are edible but should not be eaten in large quantities (see Cautions). The leaves have also been eaten as a salad vegetable.

Nutritional Profile

Beech bark is thought to be astringent, but few data suggest other nutritional properties.

Beech Recipes

Herbal Medicine Uses of Beech

Beech has been used in many healing rituals since ancient times, but traditionally the tree was a remedy for minor ailments such as boils, piles and other skin complaints. These uses may be due to the bark’s astringent effect.

Other Uses

The wood has been used to make furniture, bowls, baskets and kitchen utensils. Tar from the timber can be used to make creosote.

Safety Note

Excessive consumption of raw nuts may cause poisoning. The tree is best avoided in food and medicine when pregnant or breastfeeding.

References

Cleene, M. de & Lejeune, M. C. (2002) Compendium of symbolic and ritual plants in Europe. Ghent: Man & Culture.

Hatfield, G. (2008) Hatfield’s herbal: the secret history of British plants. London: Penguin.

Comment

  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.

    • Our Beech tree (UK) which is about 30 years old has just produced nuts for the first time.
      We will try some but not too many as per the warning.
      I wonder if the drought like weather has prompted the nuts?

      • Hi Gwen….We live on the west coast of Canada, Vancouver BC. Our beech tree has produced nuts for the first time as well. I was curious about it which brought me here. We have have had a very hot summer no rain at all.
        So you are probably right about the weather conditions. The squirrels love them.

  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!!

  7. an old manjidawin indian ,(northeast Michigan) told me about beech nut tea that they drank, keeps you from getting sick for a year he said, but could also poison you, been drinking it for 40 plus years, never really get any sickness, don’t take no prescriptions, rarely ever go to doc, very good health. must be something there?

  8. Here in SW Ohio, I haven’t seen any edible beech nuts in many years, though my sister and I snacked on them every fall as kids — every burr I’ve opened has only empty/unfertilized nut shells.

    Anyone notice a similar lack of pollination in your local beeches?

  9. I live in beech country (Algonquin Park area) and have eaten beech nuts all my life without problems of any kind. Two important things not dealt with by Wikipedia – mature beech forests (ones with nuts) are a major source of food for animals such as deer , bear , and squirrels and mature beech forests are fast going the way of the Dodo bird due to overlogging and a recently arrived blight that kills mature trees.

Leave a comment