Beech: A national treasure!

British beech - a national treasure

Beech turns a wonderful copper colour in winter.

The magnificent beech tree is quintessentially British – and not to mention elegant, flexible, award-winning, reliable, colourful...

Maybe surprisingly, beech is classed only as native to Southern England, and then only from as recently as 4,000BC. Nevertheless, the beech is an important (and much loved) part of our ancient British woodlands.

Whether grown as a beech tree or beech hedging, it helps support a vast array of wildlife – from the bluebells that take advantage of that brief window of warmth and sunlight before the deciduous canopy opens, to the insects, birds and larger mammals that find food and set up home in their boughs and roots.

A place in our history

The importance of beech to human development has also been long appreciated. Its timber is greatly praised for its properties as a fuel, and as a material for building, furniture and tool making. Life would have been much harsher were it not for those!

And the nuts have been valued for their nutritional worth, not only for human consumption but also as a food for farmed pigs, who would traditionally forage the woods for beech nuts and acorns.

The Meikleour Beech Hedge, over half a kilometre long.
By MichaelDFowler (own work)
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

There are some wonderful examples of ancient specimens. One of the most famous is the Kilravock Layering Beech, which can be found in the grounds of Kilravock Castle in Inverness-shire.

It is a vast spreading tree, whose limbs have bowed to touch the ground and rooted, creating new trees. Planted in the 17th century it is known as the "Kissing Beech" after a member of an early owners family was found kissing a housemaid under its wandering branches. Beeches are frequently associated with lovers because the thin bark can be easily carved into with names and words of devotion.

Another famed beech is the Meikleour Beech Hedge in Perth and Kinross. At 560 meters long and 36 meters high it is the longest and tallest hedge on earth. It was planted in 1745, and it is thought that it was left to grow towards the heavens in honour of the men who planted it who never returned after fighting in the Jacobite rebellion.

The fact that these ancient examples remain intact and popular speaks volumes for the regard in which beech is held.

Beech offers real year-round interest

In the garden the beech has long been employed as a fantastic hedging plant as well as a grand specimen for large gardens. Fagus sylvatica has dazzling green foliage; and its cousin Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea' provides glorious shades of deep burgundy and purple.

Both turn exquisite hues of copper and red in the autumn, and the trees cling to many of these shimmering leaves right the way through winter until they fall to make way for new buds opening in spring.

Beech tapestry hedge combining green
and purple varieties

But until the buds arrive, the dry leaves rustle wonderfully on the branches in the wind – it's strikingly reminiscent of waves crashing on a shingle beach. We do wonder...!

Beeches lend themselves to being used in formal gardens as they can be kept closely clipped into neat forms, such as hedges and topiary. The two different colours can be mixed together to form a multi coloured 'tapestry' hedge.

They can be trained into striking structural frameworks and through the weaving together of their branches a hedge can be formed raised above a row of clear trunks. This is the art of 'pleaching' and was very popular in Tudor gardens where it was seen as a status symbol for landowners due to its labour intensive nature.

From award-winning garden design...

There are some wonderful examples of how the beech can be used to stunning ornamental effect in many of our country parks and gardens.

Arne Maynard is a garden designer who revels in the sculptable form of beech hedging and topiary.

At Haddon Hall in Derbyshire he uses copper beech cubes to break up a large open space, and it was his gold medal winning Laurent-Perrier Bicentenary Garden at the Chelsea Flower Show last year that used pleached copper beeches as a traditional backbone to his contemporary design.

...to country hedging

However, despite all these rather grandiose applications the beech can be used very successfully in the more humble surroundings of a native country style hedge.

They are often mixed with other native species such as oak, field maple, dogwoods and hawthorn. They provide year round interest for us humans in the form of blossom, fruits and nuts, and stunning autumn colour.

Perhaps more importantly rural hedging provides habitat and food for countless species of native wildlife. They are clipped less often – usually every other year – and so grow to be large and rambling, accommodating many creatures in their tangled branches.

Looking after beech

Caring for beech could not be easier. Bareroot plants are planted in autumn and winter, and potted specimens can be planted all year round.

Both require a well prepared ground: well-drained with plenty of organic matter and fertiliser. With some weed suppression, protection from vermin and regular watering they are quick to establish.

Add a sprinkle of RHS-approved (and organic) Rootgrow to improve establishment further still.

Pruning should occur no later than August so that the plants hold their golden leaves over winter. Beech can be pruned hard too – meaning that they can be kept very much in shape and under control for many years.

Beech is very much the gardener's friend – if you decide to plant some, we're sure you'll love it as much as we do!

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