beech defined in 1944 yearbeech - Beech;
beech - G. Buche; F. Hêtre; W. Ffawydden; E. Feaga; A.-S. Boc.
The massive, rigid and erect bole of the beech, one of our largest trees, makes a strong contrast with its graceful, finely-meshed, and often pendulous twigs. These are identified in winter by their smooth bark and the pale brown, elongated, pointed buds, which sit alternately on the outer side of slight angles in the twigs; short twigs which bear leaves but do not elongate, also occur. The bark of branches and trunk is a typical blue grey, and remains smooth no matter how much the tree ages. The trunk is often buttressed at the base. The foliage appears in April, when the brown leaf-scales fell away to reveal emerald leaves clothed in silver down. In a few weeks the leaves, which are simple, oval, and entire-margined, assume the dark green hue which persists until October, when they assume vivid russet-brown tints before falling. On young trees the leaves may persist until spring, in such cases their winter hue is a neutral pale brown.
The flowers of the beech are only found on trees of considerable age, 40 years or upwards, and do not appear until May. Flowers of different sexes are borne in separate catkins on the same tree. The male flowers, which are little more than clusters of stamens, form ball-shaped masses at the end of a long pendulous stalk. The female catkins, borne on short erect stalks, each contain two flowers only, and normally produce two seeds. These seeds are enveloped by the typical green husk with its coating of stiff brown hairs, which breaks into four lobes when the fruit ripens in October, and releases the two shiny brown triangular nuts, each about half an inch long.
Pollination is by wind, and the distribution of seed is mainly effected accidentally by the animals and birds which flock to feed on it. The seed crop is variable, a season of heavy seed being often followed by a year when little or none matures.
The beech is widely distributed throughout Europe, and is believed to be a native of southern England, though most probably introduced to northern England and North Wales, and to Scotland and Ireland. It reproduces itself freely, and natural beechwoods occur where protection from rabbits and grazing animals is adequate. Allied species occur in North America and Japan. The Copper Beech, the Maiden-Hair Beech, Pyramidal Beech, and other striking varieties, are " sports " from the common beech.
The collection of beech seed is a disappointing process in any but the best of seed years. At other times, the greater proportion of the nuts are empty, and useless. To separate the sound seed from the false and from husks, twigs, etc., it may be poured into a barrel of water, when all dross will float off. It should then be air-dried and stored in a cool and slightly moist place until it is sown the following spring. 2,000 sound seeds go to the pound. On germination, two typical broad pale green cotyledons appear above ground, and the first true leaves have often a serrated edge. Seedlings are usually fit to transplant after one year's growth, and after two more years in the nursery should be 15 inches high and fit for forest use.
Beech is normally planted pure, about 5 feet apart, but on fully exposed sites a nurse species is essential, pines being frequently employed. It has a marked preference for well-drained sites but is equally at home on sands and on chalk or limestone. It endures an extreme degree of shade, and the ground beneath it is usually too dark for any green plant to grow. In the open it is very windfirm. When young it is very susceptible to grazing damage, but later on it suffers little from the numerous insect pests which attack it. Late frosts cause severe damage to young beech leaves, and may cause the failure of plantations in frost hollows. The beech is never happy in smoky towns, and should not be planted there.
Old beeches will seldom throw up coppice shoots, but if pollarded young they will shoot again, producing crooked poles only suitable for firewood. Beech is only grown as a maiden tree, and often attains a height of 100 feet in as many years, continuing to grow in girth for many years thereafter. When it passes its prime and decay sets in, trunks or boughs may be torn asunder by the wind, but the bole is seldom uprooted. Girths up to 30 feet are attained.
The timber is used in small sizes for turnery, but is seldom of value until large dimensions are reached. It is pale brown in colour, not durable out of doors, and has an even texture in every direction. It is hard and strong and is mainly employed in small articles where rigidity and even grain are important, such as wedges, plane-stocks, rifle-stocks, and high heels for women's shoes. Large quantities are used in the framework of cars and vans, and in furniture making. It bends well under steam treatment, and is much used for bentwood chairs. Its colour and texture qualify it for kitchen use in the form of wooden spoons, bowls and bread-boards. It is a good firewood and yields satisfactory charcoal.
There are many famous beechwoods throughout Britain, and the tree is likely to remain one of our most important hardwoods, especially in limestone and chalk areas. It has the valuable quality of soil improvement, building up a great depth of rich humus from its annual leaf-fall. It is a useful hedge shrub, but apt to spread too widely. The nuts are edible, and in the past were valued for pig- feeding. The beech is a distinctive tree, beautiful at all seasons, and its importance as a timber producer is likely to increase as the development of wood-working techniques opens up various new uses for its timber.
The beechwoods of the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire provide one of the few British examples of the " selection " system of forest management. The trees are of different ages and sizes, and are not clear-felled. Instead, at each thinning, a proportion of each age-group of trees is removed, providing material of various sizes. These losses are made up by the natural growth and regeneration of the remaining trees. Thus the woods produce a steady yield of timber from their whole area, but the number and volume of the standing trees, over a period of years, remains undiminished.
The photographs show the varied forms which the Beech may assume. Slender saplings as seen in Fig. 3 may develop into stately avenue trees as shown in Fig. 6, or come to resemble the rugged giants of the New Forest seen in Fig. 5. These last were probably pollarded in times gone by, to provide fodder for deer, but have since resumed their upward and outward growth as tall timber trees.
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