European beech, common beech (Eng), haya (Spa), faix (Cat), pago (Baq), faia (Glg), faia (Por).
DID YOU KNOW...? Spanish cattle farmers have a saying: “Never reach land with beech”, alluding to the lack of pastureland in these mountainous areas.
The beech is a majestic tree, slender and erect, which can be up to 40 m tall. Its smooth, grey bark is reminiscent of an elephant's leg. Its branches develop horizontally from the main trunk, in such a way that they create a dense shadow under the crown. The leaves are deciduous, simple, alternate, elliptical or oval, with very marked veins. They are 5-10 cm long and have an entire margin (although the blade tends to be wavy and it may seem that the margin is sinuate or crenate). In addition, they are hairless on both sides except on the margin, which is bordered by tiny cilia-like hairs that can be seen well when lit from behind. The flowers are borne in hanging catkins and tend to go unnoticed, but the fruits, known as beechnuts, or mast, have a striking woody cover, or burr, which has soft spikes and contains 2 or 3 seeds with a triangular cross-section.
This tree needs cool, well developed soils where the ambient humidity is high. It is indifferent to soil type and lives from sea level up to altitudes of 2000 m. The horizontal arrangement of its branches and its rapid growth favour the formation of monospecific forests where it is difficult for other tree species to thrive, apart from in clearings and at the borders, with the exception of holly and yew that can grow in shady conditions. Oaks such as Quercus robur L. and Q. petraea (Matt.) Liebl., in the same ecological conditions, will always lose to the impetus of the pioneering beech, which finally smothers them with its shade as it is faster growing. In case this was not enough, the remains of leaves, fruit and branches accumulate below the canopy. These decompose slowly and contain compounds that inhibit the germination and growth of other plants, something known as the “allelopathic effect”. In fact, the strategy of certain species associated with this kind of forest is to complete most of their vegetative cycle before the beeches develop their leaves, which usually form late.
It inhabits most of central and western Europe, and southwards it is found in the shady areas of certain mountains, the southernmost enclaves being in Sicily and on the Iberian Peninsula, the Ports de Beceit and the Hayedo de Montejo in Madrid. The best representatives in Iberia are found in the north, from the Ancares range to the eastern Pyrenees. The journalist and writer Víctor de la Serna talks about the Cantabrian beech of the Sakha region, in Nuevo viaje de España. La ruta de los foramontanos: “It is, dear reader, a magical forest, a Disney forest. Ten thousand hectares of beech trees, with trunks like in the olden days, that bloom in a soft green, and in whose crowns, within a few days, will sing the rutting capercaillie...”. The best example of Iberian beech forest is Irati, Spain's largest continuous forest.