1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beech

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BEECH, a well-known tree, Fagus sylvatica, a member of the order Fagaceae to which belong the sweet-chestnut (Castanea) and oak. The name beech is from the Anglo-Saxon boc, bece or beoce (Ger. Buche, Swedish, bok), words meaning at once a book and a beech-tree. The connexion of the beech with the graphic arts is supposed to have originated in the fact that the ancient Runic tablets were formed of thin boards of beech-wood. “The origin of the word,” says Prior (Popular Names of British Plants), “is identical with that of the Sanskrit bōkō, letter, bōkōs, writings; and this correspondence of the Indian and our own is interesting as evidence of two things, viz. that the Brahmins had the art of writing before they detached themselves from the common stock of the Indo-European race in Upper Asia, and that we and other Germans have received alphabetic signs from the East by a northern route and not by the Mediterranean.” Beech-mast, the fruit of the beech-tree, was formerly known in England as buck; and the county of Buckingham is so named from its fame as a beech-growing country. Buckwheat (Bucheweizen) derives its name from the similarity of its angular seeds to beech-mast. The generic name Fagus is derived from φάγειν to eat; but the φηγός of Theophrastus was probably the sweet chestnut (Aesculus) of the Romans. Beech-mast has been used as food in times of distress and famine; and in autumn it yields an abundant supply of food to park-deer and other game, and to pigs, which are turned into beech-woods in order to utilize the fallen mast. In France it is used for feeding pheasants and domestic poultry. Well-ripened beech-mast yields from 17 to 20% of non-drying oil, suitable for illumination, and said to be used in some parts of France and other European countries in cooking, and as a substitute for butter.

The beech is one of the largest British trees, particularly on chalky or sandy soils, native in England from Yorkshire southwards, and planted in Scotland and Ireland. It is one of the common forest trees of temperate Europe, spreading from southern Norway and Sweden to the Mediterranean. It is found on the Swiss Alps to about 5000 ft. above sea-level, and in southern Europe is usually confined to high mountain slopes; it is plentiful in southern Russia, and is widely distributed in Asia Minor and the northern provinces of Persia.

It is characterized by its sturdy pillar-like stem, often from 15 to 20 ft. in girth, and smooth olive-grey bark. The main branches rise vertically, while the subsidiary branches spread outwards and give the whole tree a rounded outline. The slender brown pointed buds give place in April to clear green leaves fringed with delicate silky hairs. The flowers which appear in May are inconspicuous and, as usual with our forest trees, of two kinds; the male, in long-stalked globular clusters, hang from the axils of the lower leaves of a shoot, while the female, each of two or three flowers in a tiny cup (cupule of bracts), stand erect nearer the top of the shoot. In the ripe fruit or mast the four-sided cupule, which has become much enlarged, brown and tough, encloses two or three three-sided rich chestnut-brown fruits, each containing a single seed. It is readily propagated by its seeds. It is a handsome tree in every stage of its growth, but is more injurious to plants under its drip than other trees, so that shade-bearing trees, as holly, yew and thuja, suffer. Its leaves, however, enrich the soil. The beech has a remarkable power of holding the ground where the soil is congenial, and the deep shade prevents the growth of other trees. It is often and most usefully mixed with oak and Scotch fir. The timber is not remarkable for either strength or durability. It was formerly much used in mill-work and turnery; but its principal use at present is in the manufacture of chairs, bedsteads and a variety of minor articles. It makes excellent fuel and charcoal. The copper-beech is a variety with copper-coloured leaves, due to the presence of a red colouring-matter in the sap. There is also a weeping or pendulous-branched variety; and several varieties with more or less cut leaves, are known in cultivation.

The genus Fagus is widely spread in temperate regions, and contains in addition to our native beech, about 15 other species. A variety (F. sylvatica var. Sieboldi) is a native of Japan, where it is one of the finest and most abundant of the deciduous-leaved forest trees. Fagus americana is one of the most beautiful and widely-distributed trees of the forests of eastern North America. It was confounded by early European travellers with F. sylvatica, from which it is distinguished by its paler bark and lighter green, more sharply-toothed leaves. Several species are found in Australia and New Zealand, and in the forests of southern Chile and Patagonia. The dense forests which cover the shore of the Straits of Magellan and the mountain-slopes of Tierra del Fuego consist largely of two beeches—one evergreen, Fagus betuloides, and one with deciduous leaves, F. antarctica.