From Ireland to the Black Sea and from Scandinavia to the toe of Italy, Europe’s great forests are furnished by the soaring columns and translucent emerald canopies of beech trees. The eastern half of North America has its own, closely related beech; Asia too is home to members of the same family, the Fagaceae . The beech is no shy creature: it demands space and light and is greedy for both, shading out competition from other trees and shrubs. Below ground, the beech develops an intimate association with mycorrhizal fungi with which it shares sugars in return for nitrogen and other scarce minerals. Beech forests are gregarious communities of mutual interest and solidarity.
Like the oaks, beech trees produce very large crops of nuts – two or three for every spiky husk; and, like the oaks, they do so irregularly. Mast years are those in which a superabundance ensures that not all are eaten by hungry birds and mammals. Beech woods were invaluable in traditional communities: each autumn, pigs would be turned into the woods to fatten on the nuts – a practice called pannage – before winter slaughtering. The nuts are oil rich and very good to eat; they can be roasted as a coffee substitute. The wood of the beech is strong and dense with a fine grain, used in furniture making, for turning on lathes and for flooring. Thin boards were once used to bind manuscripts – hence the English word ‘book’ comes from Old English ‘boc’, the name for a beech. The wood produces a fine charcoal that burns long and hot, leaving a residue tar used as a waterproofing and preservative paint. The leaves can be cut and used as fodder for cattle and the bark contains tannin, used in curing leather.
Beech trees, which will generally grow to more than 30 metres (98 feet) tall, also coppice well, producing regular crops of poles and fuel and making highly effective hedging, since they tend to keep many of their dried leaves through winter. But, unlike oaks, they do not live to a great age – rarely more than 250 years; and that may explain the relative paucity of beech-derived names in old settlements, in ancient boundary clauses and estate texts.