The tree known as the beech is a native of temperate regions of the world. It is a medium to large deciduous tree that can grow to one hundred feet or greater. Beech wood is used as a hardwood for construction in many parts of the world; the bark of the beech is smooth and has a color from light gray to blue gray. The beech has leaves that alternate along the branches and each leaf is about two and a half to five and a half inches in length, these leaves have sharp toothed margins and pointed tips at the ends. Once the beech matures, it gives off yellowish flowers from April to May, these turn into spiny fruitlike structures which open late in the summer and contain two triangular nuts - which can be considered the fruits of the beech.
Beechnuts were at one time a rather common food item on grocery shelves, dried or roasted they were a popular substitute for coffee beans and the oil of the beechnut was used in cooking and many kinds of cuisines. The emerging leaves of the beech also served as a potherb in many parts of the southern United States not so long ago. Beech nut eaten raw itself can be very sweet and delicious, however, not only humans but animals such as grouse, squirrels and other birds and animals also love to eat these nuts. Pioneers in early colonial America used the beech as a gauge for the fertility of potential farmland and as the tall, handsome beech tree was known to grow only in loamy soils which were rich in humus -pioneers who thus spotted the beech on their potential knew they had found good farmland if it had a beech tree growing in the soil.
The beech is a native tree of the American continent and has long enjoyed a good reputation in temperate America as a source of many traditional and folk medicines - both with the natives and the early colonizers. A lotion to counteract the poison ivy was prepared by the Rappahannock Indians from the beech, these Native Americans steeped beech barks in saltwater to produce the lotion - the effects of poison ivy could be counteracted by this lotion when it was rubbed on affected areas of the body. The sap obtained from the beech was one of the ingredients in syrup compounded to treat tuberculosis in Kentucky not so long ago. Traditionally, herbal decoctions made either from the leaves or the bark served in folk medicine and was used as an ointment to treat burns, all kinds of sores and ulcers, when these were consumed, they acted as a treatment for disorders affecting the bladder, the kidneys and the liver. Herbal beech decoction made using the root or the leaves of the plant was believed to help treat intermittent fevers, persistent dysentery and problems like diabetes, at the same time, the beech oil sourced from the nut was used in the treatment of intestinal worms and other parasitic infections.
All the recognized medicinal properties and beneficial effects of the beech bark and leaves are due mainly to the astringent and antiseptic properties they possess. The leaves and the bark of the beech were traditionally used in many different herbal preparations for the treatment of a variety of disorders affecting different parts of the body.
The boiled beech leaves and bark were also used to prepare a decoction and this was used as a wash or made into a poultice to treat different problems such as frostbite, all kinds of minor burns and in treating poison ivy rash. The beech nuts were also normally eaten as a vermifuge to rid a person of intestinal parasites. Beech bark was also made into an herbal tea and this was used in the treatment of disorders that affected the lungs. The herbal beech bark tea was also used to induce an abortion in pregnant women suffering from problems in the early stages of pregnancy.
Beech oil sourced from the seeds has also been used traditionally as a fuel for old style oil lamps - these lamps were very common early in the history of colonial America. The wood of the beech is strong, heavy and hard, it is a very fine grained wood, however, it is difficult to cure and not durable. The beech is harvested on a commercial basis as a major source of timber; the wood is used to make furniture, as flooring wood, to make tool handles and crates. Beech wood is also used in artwork and makes an excellent charcoal. Commercial plantations of beech are undertaken in the United States and other countries.
Habitat and cultivation
The beech is a native species of the American continent. Beech forests can be found from Nova Scotia to Ontario, to Florida in the south up to eastern Texas, such forests can also be seen in the west up to Wisconsin and extend to Missouri in the south.
The ideal soil type to grow beech is light or medium soil, the plant does well on chalk, and however, it is not well adapted on heavy wet soils and grows badly on such soils. The shade tolerance of young beech trees is good; however, the young trees are easily subject to damage from frost damage and are best grown in woodland sites where they can gain protection from the frost. Beech seeds are dispersed following the first frosts of the year; these seeds are sometimes gathered and sold in the local markets of N. America to be used for many different processes. In the wild, good crops can be produced once every two to three years. Beech species of some kinds give off suckers and can often form thickets in the wild forming shady undergrowth around the tree. A dense shade is common around beech trees as they have surface feeding roots, the growth of these surface roots can greatly inhibit the growth of other plants in the area around the plant, particularly in places where a number of the trees are clumped together, as a result of the shade, the ground around beech trees is almost without any other vegetation or undergrowth.
The beech trees are propagated in plantations using the stored seeds. Beech seeds have limited viability and are best sown as soon as the nuts have ripened in the autumn - the use of a cold frame is ideal to promote rapid germination of the plants. The beech seeds must be protected from mice and other seed pests. The beech seeds normally germinate during the spring season. Once the seedlings have emerged and become large enough to handle, each individual seedling must be pricked out and placed into individual pots, these can then be grown in the greenhouse the first winter. Once they have been allowed to grow in the greenhouse, the seedlings can then be planted out into their permanent positions in the late spring or in early summer, following the passage of the last expected frosts of the year. Late frosts can easily damage the growing seedlings which are all rather slow growing during the first few years and they are all very susceptible to permanent damage from adverse weather during these initial years of growth. Beech seeds can also be sown in an outdoor seedbed during the autumn months. Before they are finally transplanted, seedlings can be left in open ground for three years, however, they are likely to grow best if they are placed in their final positions as soon as possible provided they are given protection from sudden frosts in early spring.