Family Foraging: Beech Nut

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Beech 

Fagus Sylvatica

Beech trees can grow to around 115 ft (35 m) tall, but you will often find them a lot smaller, around 29-1/2 ft (9 m) or about the height of a house. When in leaf they are dome shaped. Once the leaves die back in the fall, they often stay on the tree until a strong wind blows them off.

Leaves

The leaves are wavy and lime green, or even slightly silver, and a little hairy when they emerge. They grow to 1-1/2  to 3-1/2 in (4–9 cm) and lose their hairs as they mature. They are oval-shaped and wavy with a pointy tip. 

Flowers

Beech is what’s known as “monoecious,” which is a long word meaning male and female flowers grow on the tree at the same time as catkins and blossom. The catkins are long, droopy clusters of flowers which dangle off the tree like hundreds of earrings. The flowers are light brown (or red on a copper beech tree) and green and grow in pairs. They don’t stay as flowers for long, turning into little green furry balls which develop into the casing of the nut. 

Fruit or nut

A hard, four-sided furry case which will open when the nut is ripe. The nut has three sides and looks like a mini-chestnut; you get one or two of them in a case. If the flower has not been pollinated, the nuts are flat and contain no fleshy bit to eat. 

Where in the world?

Fagus sylvatica grows in the northeastern part of the United States. It also grows in southeast England, southeast Wales, and throughout Europe with the exception of northern Scandinavia, Portugal, and all but the northern coast of Spain. Fagus grandifolia grows all over the eastern United States, as far west as Texas and Minnesota or Ontario in Canada.

Where to find it locally

In beech woods, parks, gardens, and sometimes planted along streets.

How to eat it

You can eat the first leaves of a beech when they are still very small and silvery or light green. Don’t be tempted to eat the older, darker green leaves, as these will contain lots of tannins, which can make you sick; thankfully it is hard to eat too much of them as they taste disgusting! Beech nuts, often called beech mast, make a very tasty snack. They can also be toasted in a warm oven. Beech nuts should be peeled as the skins can be bitter and astringent, and not good for you in large quantities. 

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Cover courtesy of Roost Books


From Family Foraging by David Hamilton © 2019 by David Hamilton. Reprinted in arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.

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