Tree 1: European Beech
In the British Isles, the beech tree is native only to the south-east of England and Wales but is now naturalised throughout. It is renowned for its striking seasonal colours and leafy canopy. In spring, its oval leaves are light green, and soft to the touch. In summer they become darker and harder and in autumn they become yellow, orange, russet and copper. Female flowers appear soon after the new leaves in spring, followed by male catkins. A beech in Hagg Wood by the River Derwent near Matlock Bath is believed to be the UK’s tallest native tree at 45 metres. The Woodland Trust YouTube clip showing a year in the life of a beech tree is recommended.
Look at the base of our featured tree and you will understand why Tennyson referred to a serpent-rooted beech in his poem The Brook; an Idyll. You can see many more fine serpent-rooted beeches if you walk from the Park through the Limb Valley. Other poems referring to beeches include Siegfried Sassoon’s Blunden’s Beech and Thomas Campbell’s The Beech Tree’s Petition.
Beechnuts are edible, but only in small numbers for humans. The beech attracts butterflies and moths, including the beech pygmy moth which feeds exclusively on beech. It is also attractive to bats and dormice, and to birds, including woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits and finches. The beeches in the Limb Valley have suffered from a beetle called the Beech leaf Miner.
Uses of beechwood include making tool handles, furniture, floors, bowls, sporting equipment and good-luck charms. Perhaps Campbell’s woodman had one of these in mind. Locally, beechwood continues to be used in one of Sheffield’s remaining Victorian courtyard factories in the manufacture of chisel handles. Indeed, on a recent visit to Armenia, the author met a woodcarver who proudly showed off his Sheffield beechwood chisels.
The beech tree is associated with femininity, abundance, prosperity and wisdom. It is sometimes called the queen or mother of the woods, with oak as the king. It was said that no harm would befall a lost traveller who took shelter under a beech, it being one of the few holy trees in the wood. The association with knowledge and wisdom is often said to follow, in part, from the use of thin slices of beechwood that were said to have been bound together to produce the earliest form of book. Interestingly, the anglo-saxon name for beech was boc and the german words for beech and book are buche and buch.