Of The Beech
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
1. The beech, [ fagus] (of two or three kinds) and numbred amongst the glandiferous trees, I rank here before the martial ash, because it commonly grows to a greater stature. But here I may not omit a note of the accurate critic Palmerius, upon a passage in Theophrastus, 1 where he animadverts upon his interpreter, and shews that the ancient i'iry was by no means the beech, but a kind of oak ; for that the figure of the fruit is so widely unlike it, that being round, this triangular ; and both Theophrastus and Pausanias make it indeed a species of oak, (as already we have noted in cap. III.) wholly differing in trunk, as well as fruit and leaf ; to which he adds (what determines the controversie) E aov rilç ¢ljyoû iQ‘upûrarov Kai âo?1rtgarov, &c. that it is of a firmer timber, not obnoxious to the worm ; neither of which can so confidently be said of the beech. Yet La Cerda too seems guilty of the same mistake : But leaving this, there are of our fagi, two or three kinds with us ; the mountain (where it most affects to grow) which is the whitest, and most sought after by the turner ; and the campestrial or wild, which is of a blacker colour, and more durable. They are both to be rais'd from the mast, and govern'd like the oak (of which amply) and that is absolutely the best way of furnishing a wood ; unless you will make a nursery, and then you are to treat the mast as you are instructed in the chapter of ashes, sowing them in autumn, or later, even after January, or rather nearer the spring, to preserve them from vermin, which are very great devourers of them. But they are likewise to be planted of young seedlings, to be drawn out of the places where the fruitful trees abound. In trans-planting them, cut off only the boughs and bruised parts two inches from the stem, to within a yard of the top, but be very sparing of the root : This for such as are of pretty stature. They make spreading trees, and noble shades with their well furnish'd and glistering leaves, being set at forty foot distance, but they grow taller, and more upright in the forests, where I have beheld them at eight and ten foot, shoot into very long poles ; but neither so apt for timber, nor fuel : The shade unpropitious to corn and grass, but sweet, and of all the rest, most refreshing to the weary shepherd--lentus in umdra, ecchoing Amaryllis with his oten pipe. Mabillon tells us in his Itinerary, of the old beech at Villambrosa, to be still flourishing, (and greener than any of the rest) under whose umbrage the famous eremit Gualbertus had his cell.
This tree planted in pallisade, affords a useful and pleasant skreen to shelter orange and other tender case-trees from the parching sun, &c. growing very tall, and little inferior to the horn-beam, or Dutch-elm. In the valleys (where they stand warm, and in consort) they will grow to a stupendous procerity, though the soil be stony and very barren : Also upon the declivities, sides, and tops of high hills, and chalky mountains especially, for tho' they thrust not down such deep and numerous roots as the oak ; and grow to vast trees, they will strangely insinuate their roots into the bowels of those seemingly impenetrable places, not much unlike the fir it self, which with this so common tree, the great Caesar denies to be found in Britanny ; Materia cujusque generis, ut in Gallia, praetor fagum & abietem : But certainly from a grand mistake, or rather, for that he had not travelled much up into the countrey : Some will have it fagus instead of ficus, but that was never reckon'd among the timber-trees : Virgil reports it will graff with the chesnut.
Hence in the world's best years the humble shed,
With it the turner makes dishes, trays, rimbs for buckets, and other utensils, trenchers, dresser-boards, &c. likewise for the wheeler, joyner, for large screws, and upholster for sellyes, chairs, stools, bedsteads, &c. for the bellows-maker, and husbandman his shovel and spade-graffs ; floates for fishers nets instead of corks, is made of its bark ; for fuel, billet, bavin and coal, tho' one of the least lasting : Not to omit even the very shavings for the fining of wines. Peter Crescentius writes, that the ashes of beech, with proper mixture, is excellent to make glass with. If the timber lie altogether under water, 'tis little inferior to elm, as I find it practised and asserted by shipwrights : Of old they made their vasa vindemtatoria and corbel messoriae (as we our pots for strawberries) with the rind of this beech, nay, and vessels to preserve wine in, and that curiously wrought cup which the shepherd in the Bucolicks wagers withal, was engraven by Alcimedon upon the bark of this tree :
And an happy age it seems
When only beechen-bowls were in request.
Of the thin lamina or scale of this wood (as our cutlers call it) are made scabards for swords, and band-boxes, superinduc'd with thin leather or paper, boxes for writings, hat-cases, and formerly book-covers. I wonder we cannot split it our selves, but send into other countries for such trifles. In the cavities of these trees, bees much delight to hive themselves : Yet for all this, you would not wonder to hear me deplore the so frequent use of this wood, if you did consider that the industry of France furnishes that country for all domestick utensils with excellent wallnut ; a material infinitely preferable to the best beech, which is indeed good only for shade and for the fire, as being brittle, and exceedingly obnoxious to the worm, where it Iies either dry, or wet and dry, as has been noted ; but being put ten days in water, it will exceedingly resist the worm : To which, as I said, it is so obnoxious, that I wish the use of it were by a law, prohibited all joyners, cabinet-makers, and such as furnish tables, chairs, bed-steads, cofers, screws, &c. They have a way to black and polish it, so as to render it like ebony, and with a mixture of soot and urine, imitate the wall-nut ; but as the colour does not last, so nor does the wood it self (for I can hardly call it timber) soon after the worm has seiz'd it, unless one spunge and imbibe it well with the oyl of spike, where they have made holes. Ricciolus indeed much commends it for oars ; and some say, that the vast Argo was built of the fagus, a good part of it at least, as we learn out of Apollonius ; this will admit of interpretation ; the fagus yet by Claudian is mentioned with the alder,
His life to storms, first beech and elder cuts, And measuring them, to various uses puts.
But whilst we thus condemn the timber, we must not omit to praise the mast, which fats our swine and deer, and hath in some families even supported men with bread : Chios indured a memorable siege by the benefit of this mast ; and in some parts of France they now grind the buck in mills: It affords a sweet oyl, which the poor people eat most willingly : But there is yet another benefit which this tree presents us ; that its very leaves (which make a natural and most agreeable canopy all the summer) being gathered about the fall, and somewhat before they are much frostbitten, afford the best and easiest mattrasses in the world to lay under our quilts instead of straw ; because, besides their tenderness and loose lying together, they continue sweet for seven or eight years long, before which time straw becomes musty and hard ; they are thus used by divers persons of quality in Dauphine ; and in Swizzerland I have sometimes lain on them to my great refreshment ; so as of this tree it may properly be said,
' The wood's an house ; the leaves a bed.
Being pruin'd it heals the scar immediately, and is not apt to put forth so soon again as other trees.
The stagnant water in the hollow-trees cures the most obstinate tetters, scabs, and scurfs, in man or beast, fomenting the part with it ; and the leaves chew'd are wholsome for the gums and teeth, for which the very buds, as they are in winter hardned and dried upon the twigs, make good tooth-pickers. Swine may be driven to mast about the end of August: But it is observ'd, that where they feed on't before it be mature, it intoxicates them for a while ; and that generally their fat is not so good and solid, but drips away too soon. In the mean time, the kernels of the mast are greedily devour'd by squirels, mice, and above all, the dormice, who harbouring in the hollow-trees, grow so fat, that in some countries abroad, they take infinite numbers of them, (I sup-pose) to eat ; and what relief they give thrushes, black-birds, feldefares and other birds, every body knows. See Mithiolus in dioscord. I. I. of what they suffer in Carinthia, Carniola, and Itiria. Supplement to this Tract, vid. Ray's tom. III. Lib. xxv. Dendrologia Fago. tom. I I. p. 1382.