The Common Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is a deciduous tree belonging to the beech family Fagaceae.
The natural range extends from southern Sweden (with some isolated locations in southern Norway) to central Italy, west to France, southern England, northern Portugal, and central Spain, and east to northwest Turkey.
Although often regarded as native in southern England, recent evidence suggests that it did not arrive in England until about 4000 BC, or 2,000 years after the English Channel formed after the ice ages; it could have been an early introduction by Stone age man, who used the nuts for food. The beech is classified as a native in the south of England and as a non-native in the north where it is often removed from 'native' woods.Localised pollen records have been recorded in the North of England from the Iron Age by Sir Harry Godwin. Changing climatic conditions may put beech populations in southern England under increased stress and while it may not be possible to maintain the current levels of beech in some sites it is thought that conditions for beech in north-west England will remain favourable or even improve. It is often planted in Britain.
It is a large tree, capable of reaching heights of up to 49 m (160 ft) tall and 3 m (10 ft) trunk diameter, though more typically 25–35 m (80–115 ft) tall and up to 1.5 m (5 ft) trunk diameter. A 10-year-old sapling will stand about 4 m (13 ft) tall. It has a typical lifespan of 150 to 200 years, though sometimes up to 300 years. The appearance varies according to its habitat; in forest conditions, it tends to have a long, slender light-gray trunk with a narrow crown and erect branches, in isolation with good side light the trunk is short with a large and widely spreading crown with very long branches.
The leaves are alternate, simple, and entire or with a slightly crenate margin, 5–10 cm long and 3–7 cm broad, with 6-7 veins on each side of the leaf. When crenate, there is one point at each vein tip, never any points between the veins. The buds are long and slender, 15–30 mm long and 2–3 mm thick, but thicker (to 4–5 mm) where the buds include flower buds.
The leaves of beech are often not abscissed in the autumn and instead remain on the tree until the spring. This process is called marcescence. This particularly occurs when trees are saplings or when plants are clipped as a hedge (making beech hedges attractive screens, even in winter), but it also often continues to occur on the lower branches when the tree is mature.
The Beech starts to flower when it is between 30–80 years old. The flowers are small catkins which appear shortly after the leaves in spring. The seeds, called beechnuts, are small triangular nuts 15–20 mm long and 7–10 mm wide at the base; there are two nuts in each cupule, maturing in the autumn 5–6 months after pollination. Flower and seed production is particularly abundant in years following a hot, sunny and dry summer, though rarely for two years in a row. The nuts are an important food for birds, rodents and in the past also humans. Slightly toxic to humans if eaten in large quantities due to the tannins they contain, the nuts were nonetheless pressed to obtain an oil in 19th century England that was used for cooking and in lamps. They were also ground to make flour, which could be eaten after the tannins were leached out by soaking.
Climate and temperatures vary, though humidity needs to be constant. Little is required of the soil so long as it is well drained. Though not demanding of its soil type, the European Beech has several significant requirements: a humid atmosphere (precipitation well distributed throughout the year and frequent fogs) and well drained soil (it can not handle excessive stagnant water). It prefers moderately fertile ground, calcified or lightly acidic, therefore it is found more often on the side of a hill than at the bottom of a clayey basin. It tolerates rigorous winter cold, but is sensitive to spring frost. In Norway's oceanic climate planted trees grow well as far north as in Trondheim.
A beech forest is very dark and few species of plant are able to survive there, where the sun barely reaches the ground. Young beeches prefer some shade and may grow poorly in full sunlight. In a clear-cut forest a European Beech will germinate and then die of excessive dryness. Under oaks with sparse leaf cover it will quickly surpass them in height and, due to the beech's dense foliage, the oaks will die from lack of sunlight. Foresters may assure the oaks' survival by cutting young beeches with a billhook 10 cm off the ground, which can produce magnificent bonsai.
The root system is shallow, even superficial, with large roots spreading out in all directions. European Beech forms ectomycorrhizas with a range of fungi including members of the genera Amanita, Boletus, Cantharellus, Hebeloma and Lactarius; these fungi are important in enhancing uptake of water and nutrients from the soil.
In the woodlands of southern Britain, beech is dominant over oak and elm south of a line from about north Suffolk across to Cardigan. Oak are the dominant forest trees north of this line. One of the most beautiful European Beech forests called Sonian Forest (Forêt de Soignes/Zoniënwoud) is found in the southeast of Brussels, Belgium. Beech is a dominant tree species in France and constitutes about 10% of French forests.