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Common beech

Huge beech forests growing in the Chilterns led to a thriving furniture industry there. In 1887, a group of sporty furniture makers founded Wycombe Wanderers Football Club. To this day, the team's nickname is The Chairboys.

Autumnal leaves of the common beech

Autumnal leaves of the common beech (Fagus sylvatica)

About Kew's common beech trees

Mature trees generally do well in the Gardens as they like Kew’s sandy soil. However, beeches are shallow-rooted, benefit from summer rainfall and like moisture and high humidity, so in recent years they have been showing signs of stress. In fact, these venerable trees have never fully recovered from the famously hot and dry summer of 1976.

Take a closer look

  • Look up – beech leaves are arranged to overlap and capture as much sunlight as possible. This is very efficient for the tree but means deep shade for the ground beneath. Rain struggles to penetrate too, so other plants can't easily grow underneath. But if you need shelter from the wet it’s a good place to be.
  • Look out for pairs of triangular beech nuts in bristly cases come autumn – a bumper crop will follow a hot, dry summer. These are slightly toxic to humans in large quantities but squirrels and badgers love them.

Tree biology

Given space, the beech will spread its branches out wide and can grow up to a massive 42 m high. But if packed more densely they will grow straight up to reach the sun. They hog the light so efficiently that beech woods are very dark and only fungi thrive under a beech canopy.

The bark is very sensitive to sunlight and old trunks that suddenly become exposed to the sun (if a nearby tree is felled) can get sunburn, which may kill the tree.

Cultivation and uses

Beech is easy to grow, and though it starts slowly, it needs a lot of room as it can get very large. Beech timber can do almost anything – it has fine, short grain making it easy to soak, dye, varnish and glue, and steamed beech can be bent easily. It is not strong enough for structural use, but it makes great chairs, staircases, mallets, flooring, fireplaces and so forth – and protected by a tar distilled from its own bark it has been used for railway sleepers.

Quick facts

  • Scientific name: Fagus sylvatica
  • Family: Fagaceae
  • Place of origin: Europe
  • Conservation status: Least Concern. However, some studies suggest that a changing climate might damage beeches in southern England where it is considered a native species.
  • Date planted: 1973
  • Height: 24.6 m. This species can grow up to double this height.