Dear Readers, it’s surprisingly hard to find beech trees here in East Finchley – it’s very much oak and hornbeam in the areas of ancient woodland, and the large street trees tend to be London plane or lime. And yet, in Hampstead Garden Suburb, just off of Ossulton Way, I discovered a cul-de-sac which is planted with nothing but beech trees. If you didn’t already know, you could tell by the crunch of the beech nuts (otherwise known as mast) that crunch underfoot.
Beech (Fagus sylvatica) are very muscular trees, with silvery-grey bark that can be smooth as silk, or criss-crossed with horizontal etchings and multiple ‘eyes’.
The leaves look a little like those of hornbeam, with distinct veining, but those of the beech are less ‘toothy’ at the edges of the leaf.
Mast, though, is one reason why beech trees are not planted along our streets as often as trees such as London plane. The trees produce their ‘nuts’ in vast quantities every two to three years, and at these times the pavements can be carpeted with brown seeds. However, this isn’t the only thing that people find to complain about. As I was taking my photographs, a woman emerged from her house.
“I’m just photographing the beech trees”, I said, just in case she thought I was a grey-haired burglar’s sidekick, ‘casing the joint’ in advance of a robbery.
“They’re a nuisance!” she said. “At this time of year you can be sweeping up your front drive two or three times a day”.
Oh well. It’s easy to forget all the shade that the trees provide during the summer, and their wildlife value, which is extensive: finches, in particular visiting bramblings, find the nuts irresistible. But I wonder how it was decided that the whole of this small road (Holyoake Walk in case you’re ever in the vicinity) would be planted with beech, when it’s such an unusual tree locally?) Hampstead Garden Suburb is very protective of its historic nature, and so the council’s current policy is to replace damaged or diseased trees with one of the same species. I suspect that the lady will be sweeping up leaves for many years to come.
A variant of beech that you’re more likely to see is the purple variant, the copper beech. These trees can look stunning with the sun behind them, though not much sun today. But although this is a more well-behaved tree, I still find the ‘true’ beeches irresistible. They seem to be native to southern England and Wales, but have been planted throughout the rest of the country. Folklore has it that the King of the Forest is the oak, but the beech is the Queen. Long may she reign.