Beech trees (Fagus) are members of the Fagaceae family, which includes about 1,000 genera. The family also includes familiar trees like sweet chestnuts and oaks. Beeches are tall trees, reaching 140 feet in height, with an almost equal spread. Some species, including the American beech, Fagus grandifolia, can live 300 to 400 years. Beeches are distinguished by their smooth, gray bark, relatively short trunks, sweet, edible nuts and spreading branches. Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, is the only member of the genus native to North America. Fagus sylvatica is common in Europe. Over the centuries, beech trees have acquired many meanings: religious and mythological, symbolic, therapeutic and utilitarian.
Meaning of the Name
"Fagus" is derived from a Greek word, meaning "to eat", possibly a reference to the tree's edible fruit. The common name, "beech" is from Teutonic languages and may be derived from a word meaning "book". Some sources suggest that ancient runes, which were some of the earliest books, were written on beechwood tablets or slabs. Fagus may have been an ancient Celtic tree god, significant to Celts in ancient Gaul and the Pyrenees.
Religious, Mythological and Cultural Symbolism
Beech trees may have been sacred to Zeus, king of the Greek gods. They have also been a symbol of prosperity. The trees may also have represented the goddess Diana, who presided over forests and woodlands. In ancient Gaul and the Pyrennees, Fagus may have been a tree god. In England, the iconic bluebell woods, filled in spring with bluebells (Hyacinthoides non scripta) are beech woods.
Meanings: Sustenance for Humans and Animals
The edible fruits of the beech tree are called beechnuts or "mast." Fresh beechnuts were eaten immediately or roasted, as they spoil quickly. Traditionally, mast was a ready source of food for domesticated animals (especially hogs) as well as wildlife In the nineteenth century, oil from beech nuts was used for cooking and as fuel for oil lamps. The nuts were also ground and processed into flour.
Meaning of Beeches: Beech Products
The leaves of the copper beach (Fagus sylvatica 'Atropurpurea') were once used to extract anthocyanin pigment. Beech wood was traditionally used for furniture, railroad ties, marquetry (inlays) and parquet flooring. Burning beechwood or beech chips have traditionally been a part of the process of beer and cheese making in Europe and the United States.
Before being replaced by modern medicines, creosote or tar, derived from the wood of Fagus grandifolia, was used for both internal and external complaints. Its antiseptic qualities made it useful in the treatment of skin problems. It was also used as a cough remedy or expectorant, when taken internally.