Long Live the Beech


You’re probably familiar with the word beechnut, but likely your first thoughts pertain either to smokeless tobacco, baby food or chewing gum. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one of our more common trees and yes, the nuts are edible.

Small size and tightness to the hulls renders them of little commercial use, but their flavor is quite pleasing. Dried and ground into a coarse flour, beechnut meal gives pancakes a nutty flavor similar to buckwheat. Some people even roast the nuts, grind them, and use the product to make a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried that.

The triangular-shaped nuts are borne in spiny husks. They look somewhat like buckwheat seeds, but are a little larger. They can be eaten fresh or lightly roasted and contain significant amounts of oil. Much of it is the desirable monounsaturated Omega-3 type. Other than that, nutritional value is nothing to get excited about, but nuts are calorie dense and will keep you going in survival situations. Numerous wildlife species depend on them. Deer and rabbits browse the twigs as well.

If you rarely stray from cultivated landscaping it is possible you haven’t noticed this tree much. Beech has attractive smooth gray bark and copper-colored fall foliage. Leaves persist long after they have turned brown. After the leaves fall the long pointed buds are showy as well. When grown in open areas they develop into handsome shade trees.

They don’t usually mature and produce nuts until trees are about 40 years old. After that, fruiting can be sporadic. Some years they may produce little at all.

These slow growing trees are among the longest living things in our area. Some can live up to 400 years. Older specimens develop hollow trunks, ideal homes for wildlife. They are abundant throughout the eastern US and southern Canada.

So why aren’t they used more? Beeches have shallow but sprawling root systems, making them incompatible with most of the rest of our landscaping. Roots interfere with lawns and flowerbeds. Many suckers spring up from the roots as well. These shallow roots and persistent leaves in late fall and winter make them susceptible to fire damage. This alone likely accounts for their absence in the western US.

So what good are they other than survival food? The wood is quite durable underwater and was once used for making waterwheels for grist mills. Today the wood is still popular for making barrels to age beer.

Actually, most beer is aged in steel tanks filled with beech wood chips, not in barrels, but that doesn’t sound as appetizing or romantic.  At the breweries, the chips are placed in the bottom of tanks where the beer is naturally carbonated. The chips impart no special flavor, but they become a substrate for the yeast to grow on so the process is more efficient. Anheuser-Busch frequently refers to its beech wood aged Budweiser beer in its commercials.

Beech is also used for flooring, furniture, and gunstocks. Due to its density and high energy output, it is a leading source of firewood. Long live the beech.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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2 Responses to Long Live the Beech

  1. joanneeddy says:

    Loved this – like all your writing. I have posted a link on my blog to yours…not sure you will get more readers from it but every little bit helps!

  2. I didnt know that beech was used to make beer.

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