Sunday, November 4, 2012

The best tree for climbing

Species name: Fagus sylvatica

Common name: European beech

Location: Ontario

The European beech is an incredibly popular landscaping tree in North America, even more popular than our native American beech (which you can read all about HERE). This isn't because the European species is more hardy or a better competitor than the American species; in fact, the American beech is a better competitor for resources in North America than the European species is. The only difference is that the European species has been in cultivation for longer, and so has many more cultivars showing unique characteristics compared to the American species. There are drooping cultivars, purple cultivars, upside down cultivars, dwarf cultivars, some with twisted branches, and some cultivars with golden leaves. The cultivar pictured has been selected to be short and stout; branching occurs very densely so very large branches are very close to the ground, and the tree takes on a "globe" shape. If we put more effort into cultivating the American beech in its native range, perhaps we might have more demand for our native species.

The European beech is popular not just for its ornamental value, but also for its uses as a tree for wood. Handles for tools like mallets and old screwdrivers (when the handles were wood, not metal or plastic) were often made out of beechwood, as were tool benches. The wood is incredibly durable when kept indoors; outdoors it will rot quickly if not protected by its own bark. This was one method of using the wood for outdoor applications that would last longer than it normally would; coating beechwood with a substance extracted from the bark called "beech tar" makes it incredibly durable to the elements. When you see railway ties that are coated in a black tar, those aren't the typical hemlock railway ties. Those are made out of European beech. Still popular across Europe, but largely replaced by other types of wood in North America.

Beech fruits, the "nut," are edible. Care should be taken if you choose to partake in eating the fruits; they do contain small amounts of a toxic chemical called trimethylamine. An easy way to decrease your intake of this chemical (other than avoiding eating them) is to roast the nuts before you eat them; not only does it increase the flavour of the nut, but it also reduces the amount of triethylamine by breaking some of the chemical bonds which causes the chemical to break down.