Books are probably my favourite things. You can go anywhere in a book, adventure into any subject, find endless answers – or indeed, endless questions. My book-interest extends into things related to books; I enjoy book trivia. So, I am pleased that in our wood, we have the tree from which many think the word book was derived. It is a tree that most are familiar with, the common beech, Fagus sylvatica. Thin beech-wood writing-tablets and sections of beech bark were used in early writings, and when bound together, formed a collection of pages. The Anglo-Saxon word for beech is ‘boc’, and from this comes ‘book’.
The beech tree is easily recognisable in the winter because of its torpedo shaped buds, neat and brown and scaly, held out from the twig. In the summer the young leaves are a beautiful lime green with silky hairs beneath and at the edges, then as they mature, the leaves turn a shiny dark green. Oval in shape, the leaves are pointed at the tip, around 4-9 cm long and feel waxy between your fingers. The tree has male and female flowers which open in April and May, are wind pollinated, and if fertilized, the female flowers result in almost pyramidal spikey seed cases containing one or two nuts.
The beech trees in our wood are not native – although a native species in England, beech is only thought to be found naturally in the South East. Instead, our trees were planted into a specific part of the wood in the 1960s during a frenzy of national tree planting and the trees are doing well. So well, that they have begun to seed and spread, something noted in various monitorings of the wood before our time here. So, when we come to look at woodland management, beech, a tree that is not native here and is recently planted, becomes an interesting case. Does it belong or is it the tree that should be removed to make clearings?
When left to become a dominant species, beech will densely cover the woodland floor with leaves and mast, preventing most woodland plants from growing. However it does provide an important food for caterpillars, and the mast is eaten by mice, voles, squirrels and birds, while the fact that beech is a long-lived species (living between 150 and 250 years) makes it an important source of standing dead wood. Another consideration is climate change; the band of climate in which beech can flourish is marching up the country faster than the tree itself can move under its own seed dispersal. Without the non-native beech trees up here in the North of England we could find ourselves in a situation where the trees in the South die out without being able to naturally make the jump up the country to the cooler climate they need, and with the trees would go all the species that depend on them. As usual, the solution is one of balance – we need to keep enough beech to ensure its survival and to make use of its benefits while allowing other trees the space to grow and survive too. Which is good, because I like this tree that gave the book its name.
Beech trees look beautiful in the autumn; while quite dull for most of the year, the area in which our beeches were planted comes alive when the rich brown and orange of the leaves are sun drenched against the clear blue October skies – that is the time this part of the wood shines. The beech is known as the Queen of the Wood, she is the mother, associated with femininity, partner to the king oak. The beech adds another dimension to the woodland and I am looking forward to watching the lime green leaves bursting like fans from the thin brown buds, welcoming the spring… I’m hoping those days are not far away now. Roll on the spring.
Oh, and for the book fans out there, folio (as in a book made of large, single sided pages) comes from the Latin folium which means leaf, another plus for the tree. Foliage is also derived from the same Latin word folium, nicely joining together two fantastic things in life.