Sunday, 5 December 2010

Woodland Tree Guide 1 BEECH

In an effort to add a little bit more diversity (and volume) to my blog I thought that I would include a guide to woodland trees. I do not however intend to include every bit of minute information about each species -this is available widely elsewhere, I will therefore (as usual) be expressing my own opinion as to the merits and bad points of each tree species. I intend to alternate these posts with my output of more general tree information. I have drawn up an initial list of around 60 species to cover, so not knowing quite where to start and not wanting to do it alphabetically I thought that I would start with one of my favourites.

Beech  fagus sylvatica
The beautiful smooth silvery trunks of two Beech trees just
down the road from where I live.

Found almost everywhere in western Europe, many of you will already know that these trees are a wonderful combination of grace, beauty, adaptability and usefulness.

If you are looking to plant Beech as a potential timber tree you have several choices as to where to get your planting stock, firstly if you have trees of good form in your locality you can usually quite easily find some self sown seedlings. If these are dug up carefully during the dormant season and placed in a plastic bag for storage and ease of transport, so that the delicate roots cannot dry out.If they are then planted out fairly quickly (within a few days) you can sucessfully move young trees that are up to about 1.3 meters in height. These will have reduced growth for a year or so after planting but will then grow away nicely.

If fact 7 years ago, I found a young Beech tree of 2.4 meters in height that had been ripped from the ground by a large forestry machine, luckily the weather was mild and damp so my young son and I carried it to one of my fields and planted it close to the boundary.It has not only survived without any dieback but has since thrived and become a fine specimen.

Largest Beech Specimens

To the best of my knowledge the tallest European Beech tree, stands at 45.4 meters in the Sonian Forest, Hoeilaart, Belgium. The tallest in the UK is in Lydney Park, Gloucestershire and is a very respectable 43 meters. The tree with the greatest girth (the trunk circumference, usually measured at 1.5 meters above ground) is a tree at Plas Newydd, Llanfairpwll, Anglesey, Wales and was 9.62 meters in circumference when measured in 2006

In the nursery trade Beech is thought of as being difficult to transplant but as you can see by my example above that it can do well bare rooted, even at quite large sizes if the conditions are right-This fundamental rule goes for all bare rooted trees, DON'T LET THE ROOTS DRY OUT! Once they dry their ability to survive the shock of transplanting is greatly reduced, and the longer they are allowed to dry the lower your survival and initial growth rate will be. Root drying is most severe on windy Spring days and I would recommend that for best survival and growth that broadleaved trees are planted out in Autumn when the soil is still warm. The tree can produce new roots before the onset of winter and be in a much better state of establishment than one planted in the Spring.

Another choice would be to grow trees from your own collected seed, collected from good quality local trees this sounds easy but do not underate just how difficult a task this can be. Most of you however will choose this last option of buying your nursery stock from a tree nursery. The best Beech forest in Europe is the Sonian Forest, Belgium which is just to the south east side of Brussels. Nursery trees grown from seed collected from here are with good reason highly sought after. However almost any Beech seed collected from a registered European seed stand will perform well.
The magnificent Beech trees of the Sonian Forest also known as the Foret De Soignes,
Belgium, note the people at the bottom of the photo for scale.  The forest covers an area
 of 4421 hectares (10920 acres) at the start of the 19th centuary it covered more than
twice this area Photo by Donar Reiskoffer

Beech is useful as it is very shade tolerant, you can underplant it beneath trees that cast only a moderate shade such as Silver Birch or even Oak, I have found that the young trees are not attractive to Roe deer which can cause a lot of damage to young trees of many species such as Ash, Wild Cherry, Willow and Douglas Fir.

Beech grows well on deep well drained loamy soils that are either acid, neutral or alkaline. I have seen it growing very well in limestone areas and I find that it also performs very well on the sandy acid soils that we have here, particularly on the lower hill slopes where the soil is deeper. It does not like poorly drained soils and periods of waterlogging can be lethal especially to small trees. It should also not be planted on very shallow soils that are prone to drying out. Beech is shallow rooted and particularly prone to drought stress.

This is more of a steady tree with reasonable growth sustained over a long period than than a quick starter. For the first year or two after planting provided your methods of weed control are adequate it will probably grow  perhaps between 15 and 40cm/year depending on the size and quality of the planting stock (generally speaking smaller plants survive and grow away better than larger ones)
A young Beech tree 4 years after planting as a 1.2
meter sapling dug up from the surrounding woods.

Once the trees are established and begining to assert some dominance over the competing ground vegetation the growth rate will speed up to around 40-60cm per year. Beech does not make a good pioneer species of open ground and tends to grow better with some side shelter in the form of what are known as a nurse trees, such as Norway Spruce, Scots or Corsican Pine, European Larch, Lawsons Cypress or Western Red Cedar. The use of these conifers will greatly improve the microclimate of the new woodland for the young Beech trees and they will grow substantially faster due to the presence of the conifers. This has been proven in many trials.

As the plantation grows and the conifers start to compete with the Beech they must be removed if your aim is to have a pure Beech woodland. I myself prefer a more mixed and diverse forest composition.

The best broadleaved trees to use as a nurse tree for Beech is Wild Cherry or Silver Birch, these mature at a relatively early age compared to Beech and also only cast light shade. You must be careful especially with the Birch because of it's fast growth rate, that it does not dominate the young plantation. Plantations of pure Beech should be planted at relatively close spacings, certainly under 2 meters apart to ensure plenty of choice of final crop trees of good form and to provide the mutual shelter and competition that they need to grow well in their establishment phase.

One other consideration is that when they are in leaf, Beech trees are very frost tender, so a late spring frost can severly damage or even kill small to medium sized trees. I have seen well established trees that are 20-30 years old in Cumbria (NW England) killed by a severe late frost in mid may. Therefore Beech trees are best not planted in frost hollows or areas that are prone to late spring frosts. If a mature tree is badly frosted after it has come out into leaf it can reduce that years wood increment by as much as 90%.

Despite this tenderness to late spring frost they can be a remarkably hardy tree and can be seen growing together with Sycamore in many woods and shelterbelts high on the windswept hills and moors of  North Yorkshire (UK) where I spent my youth.

Pests and diseases
In this area, Beech grows really well and is not subject to any damaging pest and disease problems, however in many areas it can be very prone to damage by grey squirrels which gnaw away patches of bark on the trunks and branches of younger trees from about 15-40 years of age. This can be a very serious and damaging problem that can usually only be resolved by trapping. Beyond this age range they are usually less prone to damage.

The one serious disease that Beech can suffer from is Beech Bark Disease where an infected tree shows dark, weeping tarry spots. This is associated with dense infestations by the felted beech coccus which is a minute sap sucking insect. This combined attack can badly damage or kill trees usually between 20 and 60 years old. Trees that are stressed by drought or by poor site selection are more likely to be affected. Conversly Beech trees that grow in a mixed species woodlands are less likely to be seriously affected Click on the link to find out more.


A huge Beech tree at the estate Den Bramel, Bronkhorst, Netherlands. Its girth is 7.4 meters, unfortunatly this tree died in the summer of 2009 due to fungal attack. 
Photo by Tim B. Monumental Trees

Beech woods are very charcteristic by their long silvery trunks and carpets of russet leaves with a mostly bare woodland floor beneath with very little or no ground flora. Beech trees cast such a deep shade that very little can grow beneath them, this makes them a dominant species that are capable of growing through other trees such as Oak, Sweet Chestnut and Silver Birch, outperforming and eventually shading them out. This heavy shade makes walking through Beechwoods a wonderful experience for us, but not so great for wildlife which thrive when rich ground flora and a shrub layer is present. Holly and Yew are the only species that I have seen growing as a sub species in Beech woodland, but I expect that Box would also grow too.
The amazing Beechwoods of the Forets de Soignes, Belgium
in Autumn. Photo by kind permission of Philou Philou

Beech belongs to a valuable group of trees that produce an edible nut. These are an especially important food reserve for birds and rodents. We too can also eat them although they do contain tannins which carry a slight toxicity if eaten in large quantities. It is possible to press an oil from Beech nuts and they can also be ground into a flour which can only be used after the tannins have been leached out by soaking.

Beech trees only start to flower and produce nuts when they are at least 30 years old and possibly as late as 80. Trees must first build up their carbohydrate reserves in the previous year in order to produce the flowers that may result in a successful seed crop. It is usual for all the trees in a large geographical area to all crop in the same year. The heaviest crops, known as mast years, only occur after hot, sunny summers and almost never in successive years. If the summer is too cold and cloudy, many if not all of the nuts will be empty, the further north that you are in Europe the frequency of good seed production years decreases.

Most people of my generation and earlier sat at school desks made from Beech wood. Chosen for this purpose due to it's excellent finishing qualities, hardness and resistance to compression and splitting. It is great wood for gluing, staining and varnishing. It is excellent for flooring manufacture and furniture, in fact almost any woodwork that isn't either structural or outdoors as it has no rot resistance. It is excellent for firewood and wood pulp but straight pieces are potentially much too good to be used in this way.


The Meikleour Beech Hedge in Perthshire, Scotland is the worlds
tallest hedge. Image courtesy of Tour Scotland Photographs.
Beech is one of the very best hedging plants, beautiful at all times of the year, it adds a classic elagance to any garden. Beech hedges have a special feature called marcescence which means that the dead leaves are retained by the trees until the Spring when the new leaves emerge, so the hedge is never bare. The worlds tallest hedge as listed by the Guinness Book of World Records is the Meikleour Beech Hedge situated 18km north of Perth in Scotland, it was planted in 1745, stands 30 meters tall and runs for 530 meters. More information at
For myself this is one of my favourite trees and I plant them in preference to any other hardwoods. I find them such a good all rounder with good steady growth, being fairly easy to manage, a beautiful looking tree with good Autumn colouring together with the potential to grow wood of great quality, versitility and value. How can you resist?

A Beech seedling in it's first few weeks of life, full of future promise.
Photo by Thue.


  1. As usual Gary a really lovely and informative article. I always fancied a copper beech hedge in the UK (mainly for their beautiful Winter colour)but somehow never got around to it. Perhaps I'll get around to it here.


  2. A really excellent and informative site.

    I am having some problems with establishing an Ash(Fraxinus excelsior) coppice. Do you know of any information regarding the initial cutting of maiden Ash trees for coppice? Many of my new regrowth has grown either a) very bent and twisted or b) very straight and tall and then been blown over in the first autumn gales.

    Best wishe,


  3. Our French Forest....!

  4. Well, it’s a nice one, I have been looking for. Thanks for sharing such informative stuff.

  5. It's really an appreciative and well written article on tree.
    Dixon Tree Care

  6. its an amazing and very informative blog about beech wood and tree.Thanks for sharing such a informative knowledge.Please visit glehand for more information about wood and its logs.


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