Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The beech tree




I have always been of opinion that the beech tree is by far the most beautiful tree our island produces, although Mr. Gilpin in his work on “Forest Scenery” is of a different opinion. He says the sight of it, in full leaf, is unpleasing, having the appearance of an overgrown bush, reminding me of what Swift, who seems to have taken but little notice of inanimate Nature, said when he saw one of these trees: “Observe how sparkish a periwig adorns the head of a beech,”—referring to the enormous wigs worn in his days.

The picturesque beauty of the beech depends very much on its soil and situation. It should not be encroached upon by other trees, but have free scope to expand its elegant foliage and branches. Beeches thrive best on calcareous hills, and abound in the vein of chalk which runs through Dorsetshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Surrey, Sussex, and Kent, and branches out into Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. In the latter country—which by the way derives its name from the beeches—the beech grows to a large size.

The remarkable passage which occurs in Cæsar’s account of Britain—“Materia cujusque generis ut in Galliâ est, præter Fagum atque abietem”—disturbs every reader of his Commentaries, who renders “Fagus” a beech tree, as it is evident that Cæsar must have marched with his army through the beechen woods of Kent, whether he passed the Thames or the Medway; but if Cæsar, by Fagus, meant the same tree as Vitruvius, the difficulty is surmounted, for Vitruvius in the following passages classes Fagus with other kinds of oaks:—“Cerrus, suber, Fagus, quod parvam habeant mixtionem humoris et ignis et terreni acris plurimum, perviâ raritate humores penitus recipiendo, celeriter marcescunt.”—De Arch., lib. ii., c. 9.

Again:—“Namque de cerro, aut Fago, seu Farno, nullus ad vetustatem potest permanere.”—Lib. vii., c. 1.

Now, in the first quotation “Fagus” is enumerated among the sorts of oaks improper for building. In the second, Fagus is synonymous with Farnus, the meaning of which is undoubted, as one kind of oak at this day is called Fargno, or Farnia, by the Italians.

It may be mentioned that Pliny, when he writes of “Fagus,” means evidently the beech:—“Fagi glans nucleis similis triangulâ cute includitur;” and he is so far from recommending the mast or seed as food for men, that he only says: “Muribus gratissima est, et ideo annualis ejus proventus glires quoque saginat, expeditur et turdis.”—Hist. Nat., lib. xvi., c. 7.

Thus, by rendering the Fagus of Cæsar and Virgil a kind of oak, which we have the authority of Vitruvius for doing, we clear two very obscure passages in these celebrated writers. The evidence of Vitruvius, who was contemporary with Virgil, may be the more strongly insisted on, as he wrote expressly on trees proper for building-timber. Materia does not include the beech among them. It may be mentioned that beech is not reckoned timber in many parts of England at this day. Still, after what has been said, I must allow that some obscurity still rests on the subject. I will only suggest that the word “Fagus” may possibly have been used to comprehend a whole genus of glandiferous trees, including the oak, the chesnut, and beech. Should it have been so, much of the difficulty is got rid of.

We will conclude this short notice of the beech by recommending those of our readers who have not been there, to visit the Burnham beeches, near Slough. For size and picturesque beauty there is nothing to equal them either in this or perhaps in any other country. Like most pollarded trees, their girth is enormous, and their moss-grown roots are thrown out in curious contortions, grasping the ground, as if setting all storms at defiance. Every lover of sylvan scenery will be able to appreciate the beauty of these beeches—

Scathed by the lightning’s bolt, the wintry storm,
A giant brotherhood, ye stand sublime;
Like some huge fortress each majestic form
Still frowns defiance to the power of time;
Cloud after cloud the storms of war have roll’d,
Since ye your countless years of long descent have told.

Tradition says that Harold’s bowmen were encamped in this wood, and that the Danes pollarded the beeches.

Edward Jesse.