Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Fagus grandifolia, or the American Beech. Beeches are one of the most easily recognizable trees in the Eastern Woodlands – their smooth, gray bark and copper-colored leaves that hang on the tree all through winter make them unmistakable. Slow-growing and long-lived, beeches are a clear sign of a mature forest. They may grow less than a foot a year, and rarely bear nuts before they reach fifty years old. They can often live for half a millennium or more.
Beeches are one of the largest trees in the forest. They lack the slender majesty of tulip poplars or the might of oaks, instead, they have a sort of stout, massive appearance when mature. Reaching heights of 150’ or so and being as much as eight feet across with a mass of low, dense branches, mature beeches have a presence that’s impossible to miss. Their bark is totally smooth – the only large tree in our area that doesn’t have textured bark when mature. This bark is a perfect canvas – look hard at any mature beech and you’ll probably see names, dates, hearts, and initials carved into the bark. Beech leaves are between 2” and 5” long with noticeable veins and light teeth. They are rather delicate and papery. Another distinctive trait beeches possess besides their smooth bark is that their dead leaves hang on the tree through the winter until spring’s new buds push them off. This makes them very easy to spot from a distance in the winter. Beech wood is hard, durable, and resilient. It was traditionally prized for barrel staves. Large, old-growth beeches are rarely commercially viable because they are usually hollow. For our purposes, small and medium beeches make great batons, shelter frames, and firewood. Beech burns hot and long, and makes for superb cooking coals.
Beeches range across the Northern Hemisphere. Whether American, European, or Asian, they all look basically the same. American beeches range from the Canadian maritime provinces to north Florida, and from the coast west to the Great Plains. There’s also a small, isolated pocket of them in the mountains of central Mexico. Beeches aren’t too picky about soil, as long as it’s well-drained. They do like moist, rich soils when they can get them, though. Because of this, the largest specimens (and your best chance of finding edible nuts!) will be found in creek bottoms and low areas.
Beech leaves are edible in the spring while they’re still bright green. They have a decent flavor, are high in vitamin C, and make a great addition to salads. But what you’re really after is the nuts. Not as bitter as acorns but not as sweet as chestnuts, beech nuts are hard, angular things that grow in weird-looking spiny husks about an inch across. They are 22% protein – one of the highest plant protein sources in the Eastern Woodlands. They are also very oily – beech oil is prized for cooking and many other uses. This high protein and fat content, along with high concentrations of vitamins and trace minerals such as B complex vitamins, manganese, copper, and potassium, make beech nuts one of the most coveted foods in the winter woods. Preparation is much like acorns: crush them, boil, pour the water off, and repeat. This leaches out the tannins that cause the bitterness. The nuts drop in fall, but will remain viable through the winter, if the squirrels don't eat all of them first.
Beech also has a surprising range of medicinal uses. A poultice made from the leaves has antiseptic and analgesic properties, and a beech-leaf tea is known to cure headaches. A decoction made from the inner bark has powerful antioxidant properties.
The European beech has a long history in western Europe, not only for its nutritional value, but in folklore and mythology as well. Possibly due to its long lifespan or its easily carved smooth bark, beeches were endowed with a near-magical ability to keep records and retain information. They had a “memory.” Over time, the practice of carving messages into beech bark was replaced by carving onto beech wood tablets. This practice stayed in place from the advent of written speech in Europe until the adoption of paper. The Old English word for beech is boc, the Old Norse is bok, and in both old and modern German is buch. Coincidentally, in addition to meaning beech, all of these words also mean book. Until paper and the printing press, books and beech trees were one and the same.