The beech: Fagus sylvatica

patulae sub tegmine fagi

This phrase is in the first line of the Eclogues and the last line of the Georgics: a tree mentioned by Virgil and others as something familiar in the Italian landscape.

The beech may be unique in its combination of beauty and bounty. Its wood has been used since prehistory for tools and implements; the nuts—sometimes called beech mast—are edible for animals, and for human beings if properly prepared in times of hardship; and the smooth grey bark is an alternative to paper, so that the Germanic root word bok (beech) is supposed by some philologists  to have been the origin of the word book.

As Virgil and his farming communities knew, the great mass of leaves are a pale translucent green in early summer, then become opaque as the year gets hotter, and provide a cooling shade as they reflect off the heat with their glossy surface, spreading over a wide area; and in Autumn their colour turns from green to shades of yellow, orange and brown, making the beech perhaps the most beautiful tree in the months of the declining year.

To foresters, the beech is essential to their work, whence their traditional view of it as Mother of the Forest. It is the nursing mother that enables them to cultivate other deciduous trees, which attain greater height in competition with the beech, as well as being fertilised by the compost from its huge crop of fallen leaves, and benefiting from the moisture that is retained in the earth by its spreading canopy.

Julius Caesar’s comment (De Bello Gallico V.12) that timber from beeches was not available in the Britain of his time is not to be taken too literally. Modern dendrologists have established that the beech was present soon after the glacial retreat. But it may be true that the Romans began its systematic cultivation for timber; and it does seem the case that in Caesar’s time there were yet no beeches in Ireland.