When interviewing Molly T. Roche, Senior Forestry Coordinator for the City of Fort Collins, back in 2018, I suggested we take her photo near one of her favorite trees. She selected the European Beech. We took the photo that summer, but I was hoping to include another when its leaves had turned. A cold spell and snow ensured the leaves on most trees crinkled up and turned brown. I waited through this fall but once again, didn’t get a photo.
Although there is an American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) which is native to the East and Utah, the tagged tree in City Park is a European Beech (Fagus sylvatica.) This species has been introduced to North America and similar to the native Fagus, grows in the east and Utah. Beeches belong to the Beech, or Fagaceae family, which includes the oaks, chestnuts, chinquapins, and two other genera that grow mostly in Asia.
The young leaves of the European beech are edible. Some say they have a taste somewhat like sorrel, which if you’ve never eaten it, has a lemony flavor. The leaves can be steeped in gin to create an alcoholic drink or made into a tea. And although this is NOT mentioned often, at least one company in the US makes a syrup from the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) sap. Granted this is not the same type of beech as in the park, but it is still interesting. A study done in Maine has cited a change in Northern forests from maples to beeches due to climate warming. Possibly a switch to Beech syrup can help save some of the current maple sugaring jobs.
Beech seeds, also known as beech nuts, according to most sources are quite tasty, although they may take a bit of work to prepare. Some may roast and grind seeds as a coffee substitute. Although a few seeds may be produced by the time the tree is 10 years old, trees do not fully produce nuts until they are 40 to 80 years old. An unusual use of dried beech buds is as toothpicks in the winter!
According to Monumental Trees, the beech tree trunk with the most girth, over 28′, can be found in Germany as can the tallest (>161 feet). According to the Sibley Guide to Trees (Sibley, 2009), a more usual height for a tree planted in North America is 50-70 feet. The internet site lists the oldest known Fagus sylvatica as a tree in Italy of 520 years. A “tree” planted around 1850 in Massachusetts is listed as the oldest known European beech in the US.
Sources vary on how useful the wood of a beech is for woodworkers. Most mention some furniture making as well as use in parts of instruments such as drums. Beeches in Europe have been used to construct cabins and furniture. Logs are used as firewood. They split easily and burn well. They may also be turned into charcoal or used to manufacture creosote.
The verdict seems to be out on using beech wood or chips for smoking foods. Most lists on the internet leave it off. One says it is long burning but has a strong flavor. Another says it is mild, similar to apple or pecan. This last mentions it is popular in Germany and used to smoke dishes such as Nuremburg bratwurst.
There is controversy about the medicinal use of the beech, too. Although many sites mention some uses for its oil, leaves, and bark, most warn about toxicity or difficulty in procuring enough seeds or oil to be of much use. Other sources suggest even the bark may be ingested to improve digestion, and decoctions of seeds have been used to improve kidney function. Poultices made of the leaves have been used for headache relief and a tar made from the beech may be considered an antiseptic and has been applied for toothache relief.
A bestseller written in 2015, The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate–Discoveries of a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, which has received many good reviews, talks about the life of various trees but features beeches. The book isn’t without controversy, though, as seen in this article from The Guardian. The book almost reads like a novel but is backed up with scientific studies. It will certainly change how you look and think about trees.
To find Fagus sylvatica, go to the section of the park bordered by Oak Street, Roosevelt and City Park Drive. The tree is somewhat in the center of the corner of Oak and Roosevelt. Currently it also sports a bright green box that might look something like a birdhouse but is actually a trap for some sort of bug. A second tagged beech in the park may be found along the lot line with the golf course.
According to The Tree Book ( Dirr and Warren, 2019,) the first cultivar of a European Beech was developed in 1770. Fagus sylvatica, Dawyck Purple is of the fastigate type and according to Dirr and Warren may grow to a height of 40-50′ (p.353.) This specimen has lovely, purplish-red leaves.
The Purple European Beech may be viewed along Jackson Ave, almost across from the intersection of West Olive Street.