Plant-Lore

Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Beech

Beech, Fagus sylvatica, trees though large, conspicuous, and widespread both as natives and in cultivation, have accumulated  little folklore, although they can create a vague sense of unease.  This is probably due to the fact that few plants will grow under beech trees, and clumps of of them can be found planted in isolated situations, such as Chanctonbury Ring in West Sussex. Thus Kingsley Palmer, writing in 1973, noted:

‘The disruptions on the bark of the smooth beech, where old growth has ceased, is thought in areas of Dorset to represent the “evil eye”, and the sinister beech grove at dusk is an unlucky place in which to be found alone’ [1].

Children occasionally collected and ate young beech leaves, known as biscuit leaves in Somerset [2], or, in Bedfordshire in the 1970s, as bread-and-cheese, a name more usually given to the widely eaten young leaves of hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna [3].

Beech nuts – mast – are small and contain little flesh , but sometimes children collected and ate them.   In 1991 a Sidmouth, Devon, correspondent who recalled her 1930s childhood in Wimborne St Giles, Dorset, wrote: ‘we ate beech nuts in small quantities, but as there was a grove of sweet chestnuts [Castanea sativa] in a field we preferred these’.  More usually it seems that the nuts were gathered and used to make necklaces.  In Somerset in the 1940s:

‘Beech nuts – easy to thread using a needle and cotton.  We made numerous necklaces until our families were sick of them.  We then gave them to the pig’ [4].

The  bark of beech trees is smooth and consequently it often has initials or hearts carved on it, and these remain visible, though usually increasingly indecipherable for many years.  In his 2010 Flora of Cardiganshire, Arthur Chater provides an photograph of carving made in 1899 on a tree in Llandre churchyard.

1. K. Palmer, Oral Folk-tales of Wessex, Newton Abbot, 1973, p.79.

2. A.S. Macmillan, Names of Flowers, Fruits, etc., Yeovil, 1922, p. 24.

3. e-mail, 2018.

4. St Marychurch, Devon, 2011.

Expanded from R. Vickery, Vickery’s Folk Flora, 2019.

Images:  main and upper inset, Ashridge Estate, Berkhamsted, Hertfordsire, November 2023; lower carvings – ‘arborglyphs’ – apparently dated 1932 and 1948, on trunk of beech tree in West Norwood Cemetery, London Borough of Lambeth, December 2023.