The Beech Tree and its Beechnuts
Updated: Sep 17
The Fagaceae family includes the beech, oak, and chestnut. The tree's species name, Fagus sylvatica, relates to its woodland habitat.
Although it is frequently believed that the European beech is indigenous to southern England, biogeographic data indicates that the species did not arrive there until 4000 BC. As a result, it was most likely introduced by stone age humans who exploited the nuts as a food source.
The beech tree has long been revered by many peoples and cultures. Beech trees are heavily associated with books, writing and knowledge, probably dating back to their use as wooden tablets that pre-date paper. In addition, the early Celts worshipped a beech god known as Fagus; the tree was believed to be a symbol of prosperity. Forked beech twigs are also traditionally used for divining. Slivers of beech wood and leaves were once carried as talismans to bring good luck and increase creative energy.
And aside its beauty and uses, the tree is an important food and habitat source for wildlife.
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Beech Tree Identification
Beech trees are deciduous trees that belong to the Fagaceae family and are known for their smooth, grey bark and toothed leaves. They produce distinctive nuts known as beechnuts. Here's how to identify them:
Beech Tree Identification
Leaves: Beech tree leaves are oval-shaped with serrated edges. They have a pointed tip and are arranged alternately on the branches. The leaves are typically dark green in colour and turn a golden bronze shade in the fall.
Bark: The bark of mature beech trees is smooth and grey. It develops a distinct, wrinkle-like appearance over time.
Size: Beech trees can grow quite tall, reaching heights of 50 to 70 feet (15 to 21 metres) on average.
Habitat: They are native to temperate regions of North America, UK, Europe, and Asia and can be found in a variety of habitats, including forests, woodlands, and parks.
Appearance: The Beech tree nuts or Beechnuts are small, three-sided nuts with a triangular shape. They have a hard shell with a thin outer husk that splits open when mature. The shell is usually light brown in colour.
Size: The nuts are typically about 1.3 to 2.5 cm long
Please note that while beech trees and their nuts share these common characteristics, there are different species of beech trees with slight variations in leaf shape, nut size, and other features.
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What has similar leaves to a Beech?
Hornbeam trees have a lifespan of over 300 years. It has oval leaves with pointy points, like beech trees. Hornbeam grows naturally in oak woodland. It has pale grey bark with vertical patterns.
Beech Tree Distribution in the UK
In the UK, the beech tree is widely distributed and can be found throughout the country. It is one of the most common tree species found in British woodlands and forests.
Beech trees thrive in a variety of soil types, including well-drained and slightly acidic soils. They are particularly abundant in southern and central parts of the UK, including areas such as the South Downs, the Chilterns, the Cotswolds, and the New Forest.
Due to their aesthetic appeal and ecological importance, beech trees are often planted in parks, gardens, and urban areas all over the UK.
Are Beech Tree Leaves edible?
The common beech has two edible parts: the leaves and the nut, sometimes known as beechmast. The leaves are best eaten while they are young and within the first few weeks of appearing on the tree. They become too bitter and/or tough after that.
Fancy trying them? Use the youngest beech leaves in our wild spring salad recipe.
Are Beechnuts edible?
Beechnuts are edible and can be consumed by humans, though they have a high tannin content and a slightly bitter taste. They are also an important food source for wildlife, such as squirrels and birds. Humans and livestock can consume beechnuts. For generations, they were fed to pigs to fatten them up in the autumn. Beechnuts are sweet, nutrient-dense nuts that can be foraged in the autumn.
Can you eat Beechnuts raw?
A few beechnuts can be eaten raw, but for the most part, they must be cooked before consumption. When consumed in sufficient quantities, the toxin saponin glycoside present in raw beechnuts can cause stomach problems.
Beech Tree Medicinal Uses
In history past, the tree was also thought to have medicinal properties and its leaves were boiled to make a poultice which was used to relieve swellings. Beech bark and leaves contain a chemical that is beneficial for ulcers and decreasing dysentery inflammation. Leaves are also good for your nerves and stomach. Beech leaves can be used to make a tonic that cleanses the digestive system and stimulates the appetite (as well as the delicious Noyau - see recipe below).
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Harvesting, Processing, and Curing Beechnuts
When ripe, the husk of a beechnut breaks open to reveal two little, strangely shaped nuts with three pointed sides. The seeds have a fibrous inner shell inside the outer husk that is easy to remove with a fingernail (after the nuts have dried and cured).
Processing the pods is rather simple. By rubbing bunches of the nuts between cloths and then removing the husks, the nuts can be swiftly and easily husked by hand. The husks do have spikes, although they are not as sharp as chestnut husks.
To cure the nuts, allow the dehusked nuts two to three weeks to dry. Like other nuts, the internal nut meat is initially somewhat moist but becomes yummier with time. Lay the nuts out in a single layer in a well-ventilated interior area for a few weeks after simply removing the outer Velcro shell.
Next is the fiddly part, removing the inner leathery shell. The shell is thin, and you can rapidly crack it between your teeth before pulling it apart or easily peel it away with your fingernails.
To toast beech nuts cook, place the shelled and husked buts in a hot dry pan for three to five minutes tossing regularly until a nice even colour is achieved and a fantastic nutty aroma fills the kitchen. Cooking removes any toxin from the nuts while also imparting a delicious flavour.
Beech Leaf and Beechnut Recipes
Making Beechnut Oil
Fill the press with seeds or nuts and turn the crank. The oil flows out of the press through the oil slit. The press cake is pressed out of the cap. From one kilo of nuts, you'll get about a third of a litre of oil. It is a labour of love; however the delicious oil is characterised by an intense nutty flavour which also has the very beneficial high content of unsaturated fatty acids.
Use a food processor to chop up the beech nuts.
Spread the acorns out on a pan lined with aluminium foil.
Roast on the lowest shelf in an oven at 200c for around 30 minutes, until they are dark (and nearly on the brink of burning - but not burnt)
grind in a coffee grinder and check the colour, if they are not coffee like in colour, return to the oven to achieve the correct level of colour and roasting (all depends on how hot your oven is). Then store in an airtight jar until ready. The result is a nutty, dark roasted coffee.
To make beechnut butter, you'll need 450 grams of ripe beechnuts. Start by peeling off the outer husks, which can be time-consuming. Soak the nuts in water for a few hours or overnight to help loosen the husks. Take your time and be gentle while peeling each nut. Once all the beechnuts are peeled, rinse them thoroughly.
Next, spread the peeled beechnuts on a baking tray and roast them in the oven at a low temperature (around 120°C) for 10-15 minutes. This enhances the flavour and makes grinding them into butter easier. Allow the roasted beechnuts to cool completely.
Transfer the cooled nuts into a food processor or high-powered blender. Blend on high speed, occasionally stopping to scrape down the sides. It will take several minutes for the nuts to go from grinding to a smooth butter consistency. Be patient during this process.
If desired, you can add a pinch of salt or a sweetener like honey or maple syrup to enhance the flavour. Blend again to incorporate these additional ingredients. Once the beechnut butter reaches your desired consistency, transfer it to a clean, airtight jar, and store it in the refrigerator.
Remember that peeling beechnuts requires patience, as it can be a time-consuming task. Take breaks when needed and enjoy the satisfaction of creating homemade beechnut butter from scratch. What does it taste like? Well, most compare the flavour to peanut butter or tahini. I find it starts out with the vegetable-like taste of the latter, with a delicious roast-nuttiness kicking in later.
Beech Leaf Noyau
If you find yourself in a wooded place, surround by beech trees in April or May, take in the beauty first and then think about how delicious a warming glass of beech leaf noyau liqueur would be when those same leaves are turning golden and falling to the ground. To make this warming and delicious woodland version of a Noyau you'll need:
A one litre kilner jar
Enough young beech leaves to nearly fill it (when tightly pressed in)
Gin to top up (about 450ml)
400g golden caster sugar
A swig of brandy
Fill an earthenware or glass jar with the beech leaves up to about 90% of the way. Make sure the leaves are completely covered with gin before pouring; otherwise, they will oxidise and become brown if left exposed. To allow the leaves to unleash their eye-catching green colour, soak for 7 to 10 days. Through cheesecloth or a jelly strainer bag, strain the infused gin.
Next, in a saucepan, combine the sugar and 250ml of water. Heat just enough to melt the sugar. Prior to adding to the infused gin, allow to cool fully. Add a few brandy capfuls as well.
Fancy making your own wild brews? Check out our wild brewing and drinks books.
The beech tree is a remarkable deciduous tree offering not only aesthetic beauty but also diverse range of edible uses, from the beeches nuts or beechnuts that can be transformed into a delicious nut butter, to the leaves that can be used in the creation of Noyau liqueur.
Beech trees play a crucial role in supporting the UK's biodiversity. They provide habitat for numerous species of birds, insects, and mammals, and their nuts (beechnuts) serve as a food source for wildlife, including squirrels, birds and foragers. From stone age man to the wildlife enthusiast we hope that you now have an even deeper regard for the glorious and stunning beech tree. Perhaps you'll even plant a few of your own..
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