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Beech Genus: Fagus An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H. Grindon
Beech Genus: Fagus by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.
Beech Genus: Fagus A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of Beech Genus: Fagus which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.
The Beech (Fagus sylvatica) is one of the noblest of our forest-trees. It rises to the height of eighty or a hundred feet, with a circumference of eight to eleven feet, and in dimensions, when full grown, surpasses all except the oak. On Sunning Hill, in Windsor Forest, there is one of exceptionally great antiquity and bulk, the circumference, at six feet from the ground, being no less than twelve yards. No tree forms woods so dry and pleasant to walk in, though grasses do not nourish beneath the shade; and at every season of the year it presents some remarkable and pleasing peculiarity. In the depth of winter it is told by the smooth grey bark and the arrangement of the branches; in spring by the buds; in summer by the leaves; while in autumn, if close by, we have the very curious seed-pods, and at a distance, those auburn and coppery-golden dyes which place the beech in the front rank of painted foliage trees.
The general character of the trunk and branches gives the idea, more than is done by any other tree, of that glorious style of architecture termed the Gothic. The columned temples of ancient Greece, and the still older ones of ancient Egypt, lead the imagination away to palm-trees, and in all probability are mementos of the use of those trees by the earliest designers of high-class buildings; in the beech, on the other hand, though there is no reason to suppose that there is any actual artistic and historical connection between the two things, we are powerfully reminded of the clustered pillars of a Gothic cathedral, and especially of such as are formed of many independent and slender shafts, as in Westminster Abbey, and ordinarily in the style called "Early English." A grand old cathedral, with its innumerable harmonies of splendour, its "long-drawn aisles and fretted vaults," its dimness and arcaded scenery, its calm, and repose, and coolness, its broken sunbeams, and imitative leaf and climbing plant on every vantage, and not these only, but with its quiet and sculptured tombs, with mitred abbot and belted warrior, sleeping so softly, "While the sound of those they fought for, And the steps of those they wrought for, Echo round their bones for evermore," a grand old cathedral, we say, with these and its thousand other solacing and inspiring charms, is always the counterpart, among men's works, of the ancient forest, where, in some mode or another, every one of its imposing qualities is reverberated; it is pleasing, accordingly, to find that here and there, amid the trees of the wood, the exact forms and ideas worked out by the builder seem anticipated. In this one, the beech, we have not merely the tall pillar, "smooth, except for odd cavities, depressions, and knobs; but in well-developed individuals, those singular groupings of erect branches which wear the semblance of clustered columns, and by-and-by give out from their summits, gracefully sweeping arches that seem the ribs of a roof of air. The smoothness of the bark fits the beech, more than any other tree, for the carving of letters and inscriptions, which, though distorted in the course of a few years, and eventually quite lost, by the gradual expansion and decay of the outer portion, are for a while as clear and sharp as if cut in stone. How beautiful and how ancient are the associations of this practice! "There is a man," exclaims one of Shakespeare's immortal characters, "There is a man haunts the forest, that abuses our young trees, carving Rosalind on their barks." Twenty-five centuries before then lived Paris and OEnone the former that famous youth who, bred among old Priam's shepherds, and tending his flocks upon Mount Ida, was suddenly called to adjudge the prize of beauty among the goddesses. Venus persuaded him with the promise of the finest woman in the world to wife, and for the sake of Helen, poor OEnone was forsaken. Till that ill fated hour, from which dated the overthrow of Troy, and all the incidents and fables embosomed in the choicest poems of antiquity, OEnone and Paris had been playmates and lovers. Gone from her for ever, now she writes him one of those tender and moving epistles which Ovid has preserved for us as the "Letters of the Heroines"' reminding him of the happy days when they were partakers in the same amusements, and when he had been used to carve her name on the bark of trees.
"Incisae servant a te mea nomina fagi; Et legor OEnone falce notata tul Et quantum trunci, tantum mea nomina crescunt; Crescite, et in titulos surgite recta meos!"
" The beeches still preserve my name, carved by your hand, and ( OEnone, "the work of your pruning knife, is read upon their bark. As the trunks increase, the letters still dilate; they grow and rise as testimonies of my just claim upon your love!" If the remembrance of these soft moments could not recall to hen his wandering affection, how little, she expresses in this simple and pathetic allusion, can she hope to recover it in any other way. The poplar was used for the same purpose in ancient times, as we may gather from the lines which follow: "There grows a poplar," she continues, "by the river-side (ah, I well remember it !), on which is carved the motto of our love. Flourish, thou poplar ! fed by the bordering stream, whose furrowed bark bears this inscription, ' Sooner shall Xanthus return to his source, than Paris be able to live without OEnone.' "By comparison, these things are trifles; to some they may seem silly, and not worth the citation. But to a heart that loves to contemplate the sweet simplicities of nature, and how little change the lapse of time promotes in all that concerns human affections and human sympathies, such records are dear. In these tender lines, as much as in any of the simple narratives of the Old Testament, we see that the passions and the events of to-day, the fidelities and the inconstancies, the lettered beech and the poplar by the river, are the same old and long-past ones over again. Human life and nature are everywhere like the waterfalls among the Alps, sparkle, and teardrops, and rainbows whenever we look, though the stream is never the same for a single instant.
Early in the spring the beech seems everywhere armed with little brown spikes. These are the buds, which in the peculiarity of their shape differ from those of every other British forest-tree. They are formed at the close of the previous autumn, and though during the winter the increase in size is scarcely perceptible, there appears to be still a slow progression. One of the most beautiful and suggestive phenomena in connection with tree-life is this early commencement of spring. For while the almanac states March or April to be the beginning, and while our own first impressions seem to confirm it, in truth the beginning of spring is many months before. Just as on a sweet summer's night, before the last glow of the sunset has quite departed, Aurora peeps from the east, so at the close of summer, if we look sharp, we may find indications on every hand, that a new season of life and energy is in reserve, and beginning even now. The buds of the hedgerow willows are swollen, and often shining and silvery with the soft white silk that wraps their contents; the alder-trees and the hazels are hung with the green rudiments of their intended catkins; every musician has his instrument ready, and waits only to see the lifted hand that shall give the signal. All things begin farther back than we are apt to suppose; nature's cradles, like those of wicker, have not more of beginning in them than of ending. Presently these little brown spikes begin to open at their sharp extremities. The coverings roll away, and in due time fall to the ground, strewing the surface till it looks like a threshing-floor. At the same time are disclosed the young green leaves and the inner coverings, which are of a delicate pink colour, dry, soft and shining, wavy and half-curled, and so thin that the light goes through them. They hang about the opening leaves, and in the contrast of their exquisite tint, produce one of the loveliest spectacles of the vernal season. Botanists call these pretty and transitory vestments of the buds the "perules." Every tree possesses analogous ones, larger or smaller, according to the species, but in none are they more delicately fashioned or tinted. The leaves themselves are doubled up precisely after the manner of a lady's fan, whence it is that on a fine warm day, in the beech (as happens in the sycamore and several other trees), there seems an almost miraculous start into life. The mode in which leaves are folded while in the bud, varies most wonderfully. Sometimes the leaf is rolled up like a scroll of paper. Sometimes it is doubly rolled, or from each edge towards the central line, and not infrequently this condition is reversed by the roll being directed backwards. There are trees, and herbaceous plants also, in which the rolling is like that of a coil of ribbon; and here in the beech, as we have said, the folding is like that of a fan. The rapidity with which leaves expand is of course greatly influenced by their primitive condition, and thus it is more to the arrangement of the parts than to any casual or external circumstance that we are to look for the explanation of their very various rate of opening. So true is it, once over again, that when we desire to discover truth, we must go inside. The differences in the arrangement of the leaves in the bud often accompany considerable differences in other particulars. The plum-tree, for instance, and the cherry-tree, are not more distinct in their produce than in this curious particular of the early leaf folding, for while in the plum-tree the "vernation" is "convolute," in the cherry-tree it is "conduplicate."
While young, the leaves of the beech are ornamented with lines of silky hairs, which at the same moment constitute a defence for them. With the expansion of the blade, these lines of hairs are discovered to coincide with the veins; while along the edge of the leaf, projecting from it like the eyelashes from the margin of the eyelid, are similar hairs, which give it the most delicate fringe conceivable. No other British forest-tree has its young leaves thus fringed, so that in this one single particular we possess a certain guide. A young beech grove, about the middle of May, when the foliage is tolerably well expanded, presents one of the greenest and airiest sights that trees afford. The leaves are singularly thin and translucent, and these innumerable silvery fringes seem to aid in detaining the light. Embosoming ourselves in a little thicket of young beech, we learn for the first time in its fulness, what is the meaning of green, and the force of that charming line in Coleridge, "The level sunshine glimmers with green light."
Fully expanded, the characteristic feature of the beech-leaf is at once obvious. To recognise this, it is useful to remember that tree-leaves are of five principal forms, viz.
Two or three of those in the second class have the blade rather larger upon one side of the midrib than upon the other. This is the case with the beech, the margin of which is at the same time quite free from notches or incisions, and by these two simple characters it may thus, under any circumstances, be identified. In general figure the leaf is ovate, or of the shape of the vertical section of an egg, but pointed at the extremity; the stalk is very short; the primary veins proceed towards the margin in parallel and nearly equidistant lines; and the surface is quite smooth.
Convinced, as are all thinking men, of the absolute unity of nature, and with ten thousand familiar illustrations lying at our feet, it is agreeable to note those more recondite ones which "crop out," as geologists say, where least expected, and under conditions and circumstances the most dissimilar. Who, for example, at the first glance, recognises in the class of leaves to which that of the beech is referable, and which is the predominant one in nature, the meanest herb and weed being possessed of it as well as the stateliest of trees : who, at the first glance, recognises in it the idea which is wrought out perfectly and consummately in the human body? The midrib of the leaf corresponds to and prefigures the spinal column; the great ribs which strike out there from prefigure the bones which are called by the same name; the interior is traversed by a multitude of delicate sap-vessels, which answer to the veins and their crimson blood; and over the entire surface is spread an exquisitely organised skin, through pores in which the leaf absorbs moisture, and perspires, and performs other functions so similar to those of the skin of the human body, that if clogged with dirt or soot, the plant suffers no less severely than a human being who ignores the bath. Nor is this all. Every portion of the blossom of a plant is a leaf curiously modified, so as to perform the various and special functions that pertain to flower-life. Sepals and corolla, stamens and pistil, all these parts are leaves metamorphosed, while in the seed-pod we often find the leaf scarcely altered, as happens in the legume of the pea. Just as the ribs in the human skeleton are so curved and disposed as to form the great pectoral cavity in which lie the most vital organs of the animal fabric, so in the pod of the pea we find the edges of the leaf so brought together as to convert it into a casket for the seeds the most important part of the plant, and round the history of which are concentrated all the most admirable phenomena of its existence. Leaves scarcely altered, except in texture, similarly constitute the seed-pods of the larkspur, the aconite, and that gay golden blossom of spring, called the marsh marigold; and exactly conforming with all these are the great seed-follicles of the South American trees called Sterculias.
The great glory of the beech is disclosed in the month of October. The leaves then assume many shades of yellow and amber, and the surface being well adapted to reflect the light of the setting sun, the spectacle, when the weather is fine and mild, is most effective. Amid the immensely varied hues supplied by oak and chestnut and elm, the beech still lifts its magnificence distinct and unrivalled, and even the crown of its concluding moments has a richness superior to that of any other. Leaves, it may be well to say, assume these beautiful tints in autumn, through failure of their power to appropriate only the carbon of the atmosphere during the performance of the process of assimilation. They become, in consequence, super-oxygenised, and the oxygen, as in other cases, manifests its presence by giving an unaccustomed brightness of tint. We are apt to speak of the fading of the leaves in autumn; it would be more truthful to speak of it as the autumnal painting. Very prone are we also to connect the idea of " autumnal foliage " with trees only, overlooking the fact that multitudes of herbaceous plants, including many of the most inconsiderable weeds of the wayside, are gifted with an equal beauty in the decline of life. No tint in nature excels the roseate amber of the October foliage of the silver-weed, Potentilla Anserina; docks and sorrels glow with vivid crimson, and the hedge-parsley turns its fernlike leaves to the colour of a king's mantle. Nature delights here, as everywhere else, to echo her greatest things in her least ones. No blind heart was that which in old time said that Pan, the god of material nature, took for his wife the nymph Echo, he playing on his sevenfold pipe, wrought from the reeds by the river, while she gave response to every harmony.
Lastly should we note the fruit of the beech. In May, soon after the young leaves are open, the tree is ornamented with ten thousand globular clusters, downy, and containing all the essentials of a flower; by the time that the lilac stars of the Michaelmas daisy begin to shine in the garden, these are followed by prickly pods the size of an acorn, and analogous to acorns in structure. That part which in the fruit of the oak, is a smooth-edged and hemispherical cup, in the beech is four-valved, the valves recurving like those of a chestnut; the acorn itself is represented by a triangular brown nut, with margins almost as sharp as the blade of a knife. In Spring these three-cornered seeds are prone to sprout, and among the mosses on the hedge-bank, beeches, like children at play, are found beginning the world anew.
Beech Genus: Fagus An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...
Beech Genus: Fagus
Beeches are not like oaks, the resort of many living creatures; the number of insects frequenting them is comparative few, nor are these trees much sought after by the nest-builders. A pleasing association clings to the beech nevertheless, such as we have with scarcely another, for as long as children's voices are lovely to human souls, will be their trill of "the woodpecker tapping the hollow beech-tree." Naturalists find in connection with the beech quite another class of objects, namely, fungi of uncommon kinds, one in particular, which in autumn appears upon the trunks, and from its resemblance to sprays of white coral, has been classically named Hydnum coralloides. The truffle, precious to epicures, and the morel, another dainty for the table, are also frequent inhabitants of the beechwood. So beautiful are the plans and marshallings of nature ! If to one tree be given good fruit, another excels in foliage; if one be tall and soaring, another gives sweet amplitude of shade, touching the earth with the tips of its long arms. Like the cities of a great empire, every one is noted for a merit and a suite of qualities peculiarly its own; and for absolute similarity we seek in vain.
Economically considered, the beech is noted for supplying wood which, when green, is harder than that of any other British timber-tree. When the tree has grown in good soil, and upon plains, it has a reddish tinge; but that from individuals grown in poor soils, and upon mountains, is whitish. Dried, it is close-grained and brittle. In England, at the present time, beechwood is chiefly used for making bedsteads and chairs; it is in demand also for panels of carriages, and for various minor purposes in cabinet-making, turnery, etc. Very much of the common stained furniture used in modern dwellings is from the same source. Beech of small size, or of short and crooked stem, is the least valuable of all timber. Whenever a straight and clean trunk is wanted, such as alone is meritorious in the eyes of the timber merchant, the tree requires to be drawn up by others of its own species, many individuals being planted in a clump, or by some other of nearly equal rate of growth, such as the sweet or Spanish chestnut. It succeeds best when composing plantations unmixed with anything else. For hedgerows a solitary beech is one of the most undesirable of trees, the density of the shade being very hurtful to neighbouring crops and to fences, and the wood, for the reason above given, being of little value except for fuel. In this respect the wood is excellent, and the green wood is generally preferred to that which is dry. Burned green, it produces heat and light relatively to beech burned dry, as 1181 is to 1540. In Paris it is very extensively consumed under the name of bois d'Andelle. For long and narrow hedges, such as are required for the shelter of gardens, the beech has no equal among deciduous trees, since through its power of retaining its dead brown leaves throughout the winter, which is always the case with this tree while young, it answers all the purposes of an evergreen. The roots . do not descend deeply into the soil, but spread to a considerable distance; the rootlets, however, are not nearly so numerous as in the ash and the elm, so that the injury done to the vegetation above them is much less. Young plants, favourably placed, will reach the height of ten feet in five years, and 20 or 25 feet in ten years. The full growth is obtained in 60 or 80 years, though the tree will live to a hundred or a hundred and fifty years, and perhaps longer.
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