Thursday, 21 June 2018

Beech (Fagus sylvatica)

BEECH (Fagus sylvatica)
Family: Fagaceae 
          Valves of the prickly cupules of Beech
   curling back to release the small triangular nuts
                 most of which were empty.
               (East Sussex, summer 1986)

Today the Beech tree is common throughout the British Isles except in parts of the Scottish Highlands (Packham et al. 2012; for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora). However, the pollen record suggests that in the Atlantic Period (corresponding to the Late Mesolithic) Beech was restricted to a small area in what is today Hampshire (Godwin 1975: 274; Seagrief 1960). Nevertheless, because Beech pollen is poorly preserved in the chalk soils of southern England, this absence of evidence does not provide reliable evidence of absence. Beech is generally the last of our native trees to burst bud.
                     Small triangular Beech nuts
                    shed from the cupules - some
                     are sterile (empty) and some 
                fertile. (East Sussex, summer 1987)

The nuts as food
Beechnut kernels contain roughly 40% oil, 23% protein, 22% starch, and 3.5% minerals (Lanska 1987; see also: Plants For A Future (PFAF) database; NutritionValue online database). Approximately one year in three or four the Beech trees in any one area produce huge crops of sharply triangular nuts contained within prickly, 3- or 4-valved, silk-lined, cupules. These are termed ‘mast years’ because beechnuts were traditionally called Beech mast[i] (Jackson 2015; see also Drobyshev et al. 2014; Övergaard et al. 2007). In the ensuing year or two, they produce virtually no nuts and in the next (3rd or 4th) year, they produce just a few.

      The tree in the centre is laden
with fertile nuts but the tree on the left
     has only empty nuts, its branches
       remain more or less horizontal.
When trees are covered with cupules often their nuts are empty and on these the ends of the branches remain horizontal. Whereas on trees that have nuts that are full the ends of the branches droop, making them easy to recognise. Also, the leaves of trees with nuts that are full often turn yellow somewhat earlier in autumn than those with empty nuts.

Peeling the nuts is fiddly, but it can be made easier (and the nuts taste better) if they are cooked, especially if they are also slightly under-ripe. However, this means extracting the nuts from still-closed woody cupules that are almost impossible to prise open. Students following Ray Mears’ ‘Journeyman’ course in Scotland[ii] discovered that these problems could be resolved by gathering cupules that were still closed by snapping off the ends of branches to which they’re attached and then singeing them in the flames of a fire. The heat causes the woody valves of the cupules to open and simultaneously cooks the nuts and splits open the thin nutshells making them easier to peel. Clearly, you have to be careful to avoid the cupule stalks catching fire and burning through. Gathering branches with their cupules still unopened offers the additional advantage of not having to search for freshly shed nuts amongst the many years’ worth of accumulated cupules and empty nuts that carpet the ground.
      Closer shot showing drooping,
nut laden branches on right, and branches
     with only sterile nuts on the left.
    (Perthshire, late September 2014)

All this is worth the effort as the nuts are rich in oils and starch, and eating even a few of them provides a major energy boost. This has shown to be of great value at the start of Ray Mears’ Journeyman course when the necessity of quickly making a fire by friction and building shelters by the end of their first day out (armed only with a knife, a billy can and a length of fishing line) leaves students with little time or energy to gather food. As soon as the fires had been started, it proved to be worthwhile spending a few minutes locating a tree with fertile nuts and a further 10 minutes preparing a pocketful of roasted of Beech nuts, which were then available to eat whenever blood sugar levels were running low, and also provided a trickle-feed of energy sufficient to sustain the students while they built their shelters.   

Gathering and processing Beech mast
Gathering and processing Beech mast in quantity requires a quite different strategy. It is first necessary to identify trees bearing ample numbers of full nuts sitting in cupules that have started to open and with their nuts starting to fall. Collection of the nuts is then easier if tarps are spread on the ground beneath each tree (especially when windy weather is expected); however, gathering them is slow work compared to harvesting larger nuts like hazel or acorns.

One of the problems encountered when harvesting Beech nuts is that they’re very popular with seed-eating birds, including pigeons and poultry, which rapidly gain weight as a result of feeding on the oil-rich nuts (Mitchell 2004). Interestingly, the fat of beech-fed pigs is apparently ‘softer’ than in those fed on acorns.

Dehusking Beech mast in bulk requires the use of a dehusking mortar and round-nosed pestle (although these are less effective than when used to process other nuts and tubers, e.g., acorns and tubers of sea clubrush, Bolboschoenus maritimus). More specifically, although they allow the removal of most (but not all) of the angular husks, they leave most of the bitter testa still attached. So, once the nuts have been dehkused and the freed husks removed by winnowing, they must be toasted and then rubbed vigorously by hand until all the testas are removed.

In the raw state the nuts should be eaten only in small quantities as they contain a toxic alkaloid called fagine (or fagin) which is apparently concentrated in the thin brown testa that remains stuck to the outside of the cotyledons even when the shell is removed (Mitchell 2004; van Eekelen et al. 1944[iii]; see also PFAF database entry for toxicity warning). However, fagine seems to be destroyed by heat. This is affirmed by the Polish ethnobotanist Łukasz Łuczaj who observes: “When eaten [raw] in any quantity they give you a headache or a feeling like after downing a few pints. This can be avoided by slightly roasting them …” (Łuczaj 2008). Pierpoint Johnson similarly describes the raw mast as “possessing narcotic properties.” (Pierpoint Johnson 1862).

          Branch with its prickly cupules still
          closed but nearly ripe and ready for
                  singeing in the camp fire.
   Cupules forced to open by singeing
  in a camp fire and the slightly unripe,
   roasted nuts are released ready to eat.
      (East Sussex, September 2004)
Extracting oil
Beech kernals contain about 40% oil and the eminent Pierpoint Johnson reports: “In France large quantities of the oil are extracted by expression and used both for cooking and burning in lamps.”  He goes on to describe the extraction process and states that first the gathered seed is: “dried under cover, and ground into paste in a mill; the mass is then subjected to pressure in bags of hair or linen; one sixth part of the weight of the dry fruit is sometimes obtained, but the produce varies much, and in our colder climate comparatively little oil is yielded by the seed.” Pierpoint Johnson also observes that the ‘cake’ left over after oil extraction is an excellent food for cattle but that “[it] seems to disagree with horses.”

Seedlings and sprouts
Some years there are carpets of Beech seedlings with their characteristic huge unfurled cotyledons; within the nut the cotyledons are intricately folded and this is clearly visible if they are unpicked or the nuts are sliced transversally. The seedlings make good eating and the nuts can be easily sprouted to provide a ready supply.

Young leaves.
The young leaves as food
In Spring, the newly-emerged, translucent, pale-green leaves of Beech with their fringe of fine hairs are not only exquisitely beautiful but are also very good to eat, and often have a delicious lemon flavour; however, in both leaves and buds, this sourness is produced by oxalic acid. Sour leaves and buds should therefore be eaten in moderation and preferably with foods such as cheese that are rich in calcium (see PFAF database entry).

The buds as food
When beech-buds swell, start to burst and shed their thin, brown bud scales, they can be gathered and eaten raw as a wayside snack, pickled in vinegar or vodka, or used to make a home liqueur (Lanska 1992).

Alternative uses: bedding
Several authors record the usefulness of Beech leaves as bedding, including Pierpoint Johnson who notes: “The leaves of this tree decay very slowly, and being tough and elastic when dry are used in many parts of Europe for stuffing beds, and were formerly so employed in England”. Similarly, Evelyn (1670) states: “being gathered about the fall, and somewhat before they are frost-bitten, [the leaves] afford the best and easiest mattress in the world to lay under our quilts instead of straw; because, beside their tenderness and loose lying together, they continue sweet for seven or eight years long, before which time straw becomes musty and hard. They are thus used by divers persons of quality in Dauphiny; and in Switzerland I have sometimes lain on them to my very great refreshment” (re: Evelyn’s account, see also Campbell-Culver 2006).

A word of warning!
A word of warning about sleeping beneath the boughs of Beech trees: even the largest branches of can shear-off and fall to the ground with no warning, and Hillman advises: “gather up your beech-leaf bedding and make your bed elsewhere!” (Hillman pers. comm.).

Prehistoric and historic usage
Beech nuts are more commonly found in waterlogged rather than charred form on prehistoric and historic sites in Europe, which likely accounts for their relative rarity in the archaeological record. For example, in their study of southern German and Swiss late Neolithic lakeside pile-dwelling settlements (‘Pfahlbauten’), where a majority of the archaeobotanical remains represent food waste that was discarded and subsequent decay was prevented because of submersion in water, they note that all finds of Beech nuts were found in waterlogged form and none were charred (see Colledge and Conolly 2014, table 4). Large numbers of charred Beech nuts are reported from final Neolithic levels at the site of Grande Rivoire in the French Alps (Martin 2012), but this is a rare occurrence of preservation of the remains because of exposure to fire (e.g., in processing or cooking). Medieval documentary records exist that describe the feeding of Beech mast to fatten pigs before slaughter, many of which comprise illustrated manuscripts showing the animals grazing on fallen nuts (Albarella 2006: 77; Jørgensen 2013). Beneš et al. also found Beech macrofossil remains in a drainage ditch surrounding the fortifications at Medieval Prague Old Town that they suggest may represent animal fodder (Beneš et al. 2002: 116). Much more recent records have been found for Beech nuts being used as a famine food in World War II, for example in the Netherlands during the ‘Dutch famine’ or ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944-45 (Vorstenbosch et al. 2017). The data the authors collected during their interviews of survivors of the war include mention of instances of poisoning because of eating large quantities of the nuts.

Albarella, U. 2006. Pig husbandry and pork production in Medieval England. In, Woolgar, C. M., Serjeantson, D. and Waldron, T. (eds.), Food in Medieval England. Diet and Nutrition. Oxford, Oxford University Press. pp. 73-87.

Beneš, J., Kaštovský, J., Kočárová, R., Kočár, P., Kubečková, K., Pokorný, P. and Starec, P. 2002. Archaeobotany of the Old Prague Town defence system, Czech Republic: archaeology, macro-remains, pollen and diatoms. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 11: 107-119.

Campbell-Culver, M. 2006. A Passion for Trees. The Legacy of John Evelyn. London, Transworld Publishers.

Colledge, S. and Conolly, J. 2014. Wild plant use in European Neolithic subsistence economies: a formal assessment of preservation bias in archaeobotanical assemblages and the implications for understanding changes in plant diet breadth. Quaternary Science Reviews 101: 193-206.

Drobyshev, I., Niklasson, M., Mazerolle, M.J. and Bergeron, Y. 2014. Reconstruction of 253-year long mast record of European beech reveals its association with large scale temperature variability and no long-term trend in mast frequencies. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 192-193: 9-17.

Evelyn, J. 1670. Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propogation of Timber   in His Magesty’s Dominions. Second Edition. London, Jo. Martyn and Ja. Allestry.

Godwin, H. 1975. The History of the British Flora. A Factual Basis for Phytogeography. Second Edition. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Jackson, J. 2015. Mast years in oak and beech. Forestry Journal 10/15: 18-19.

Jørgensen, D. 2013. Pigs and pollards: Medieval insights for UK wood pasture restoration. Sustainability 5: 387-399.

Lanska, D. 1992.  The illustrated guide to edible plants.  London: Chancellor Press.

Łuczaj, L. 2008. Foraging for a full belly - from Carlisle to the Carpathians. The Bushcraft Magazine 4(1): 10-13.

Martin, L. 2012. Agriculture et alimentation végétale en milieu montagnard durant le Néolithique: nouvelles données carpologiques dans les Alpes françaises du Nord. PhD Thesis, University of Basel, Faculty of Science.

Mitchell, G. 2004. American Beech: a climactic forest tree. Journal of the Native Plant Society of Northeastern Ontario 22(4): 8-10 online database: [accessed 14.12.17]

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. [accessed 13.12.17]

Övergaard, R., Gemmel, P. and Karlsson, M. 2007. Effects of weather conditions on mast year frequency in beech (Fagus sylvatica l.) in Sweden. Forestry 80(5): 555-565.

Packham, J.R., Thomas, P.A., Atkinson, M.D. and Degen, T. 2012. Biological Flora of the British Isles: Fagus sylvatica. Journal of Ecology 100: 1557-1608.

Pierpoint Johnston, C.1862. The useful plants of Great Britain: a treatise upon the principal native vegetables capable of application as food, medicine, or in the arts and manufactures.  London: William Kent

Plants For A Future (PFAF). [accessed 17.11.17]

Seagrief, S.C. 1960. Pollen diagrams from southern England: Cranes Moor, Hampshire. New Phytologist 59(1): 73-83.

van Eekelen, M., Hartog, C.D. and van der Laan, P.J. 1943. Vergiftiging door het eten van beukenootjes. Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Geneeskunde 87: 831-837 [English translation: Poisoning by eating beech nuts]

Vorstenbosch, T., de Zwarte, I., Duistermaat, L. and van Andel, T. 2017. Famine food of vegetal origin consumed in the Netherlands during World War II. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 13:63 DOI 10.1186/s13002-017-0190-7

[i]To fatten’ in German is mästen.
[ii] Ray Mears Journeyman Course: Ray
[iii] The English summary in van Eekelen et al. 1943 states: “An appeal has been published in the newspapers to get information about intoxications from eating beech nuts. From 331 persons informations [sic] have been received which are undoubtedly only a part of the real number of cases; 223 cases could be compiled statistically. The percentage of old people and women was greater than of children and men. Thirty-nine percent was poisoned by eating less than 50 nuts. The symptoms appeared quickly, usually within two hours. The commonest symptoms were nausea, headache, dizziness, pain in stomach and abdomen, diarrhoea, a paralyzed, tired and weak feeling in the limbs, with tendency towards fainting; three patients became unconscious. All recovered quickly, the most within 24 hours. The diarrhoea amongst some lasted longer.”

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