The beech tree is the knowledge tree, the queen of the forest, Celtic tree of life and an axis mundi to other ancient peoples. This is an incredible tree and can live over 400 years.
Do you know how to identify a Beech Tree? I ask because hanging around a beech forest will go a long way in ensuring mushroom sightings. The Beech tree has more fungi connections than any other tree in the forest. The tree of life should be so connected don’t you think?
A perfect place to practise identifying mushrooms is in a beech laden hardwood forest. Understand that each mushroom you are trying to identify can have a handful of look-alikes. Some of those look-alikes can be dangerous or unpalatable. Once you have a mushroom in hand, knowing the tree you found it on is essential to help pinpoint what it could be. Hunters know that trees and their relationships with mushrooms is a key factor to sort out which ‘look-alike’ you have in front of you. For example, maybe the edible fungi grows only on birch trees and the toxic look-alike grows only on pines. You get my drift. Knowing the top seven trees that have an association with gourmet mushrooms is an important step to identifying your prize. The seven trees are the Hemlock, Spruce, Pine, Birch, Elm, Oak (King of the forest) and the queen Beech. The Beech tree is the first tree you should learn and is probably the one you already know due to its smooth silver-grey bark that screams ‘pat’ me.
In North-eastern Canada, North-eastern USA and pockets of Mexico, our native beech, the American Beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) can be found living in moist, fertile hardwood forests with sugar maples, hickories, yellow birches, pines, white oaks, black cherry, and eastern hemlocks. Just finding a beech tree may help you locate four other key gourmet mushroom hosting tree species: the oak, hemlock, pine and birch! In America, we also have the European beech (Fagus sylvatica) introduced through garden centres. The European queen and all her cultivars refuse to thrive in Canadian urban settings but can be found doing well in suburbia. The American beech is the one you’ll find in our forests.
Beeches are monoecious trees, meaning they have both male catkins and female flowers and use wind pollination to produce the edible burr encased triangular nuts. Sought out by many creatures including the black bear. Only Mature trees over thirty years old produce nuts during mast years where all the Beech trees simultaneously dump massive amounts. As they pollinate themselves every baby produced is therefore a clone. Although their leaves resemble Birch leaves, the Beech is not related to the Birch tree. The Beech tree is in the same family as the Oak kings. Consequently several gourmet mushrooms associated with Oaks can also be found with Beech trees, too. Like Maitake, Honey, Black Trumpet and Chanterelles.
Beeches have ovate leaves with a pointed tip and wavy serrated margin. The young edible leaves are lime-green in colour and turn slightly darker emerald colour with age. The underside of the leaf is lighter than its upperside. The young see-through leaves can be used for tea or eaten raw and with the nuts one can make nut oil, flour or roasted nut coffee (alternatives foods that were popular in 1940’s.).The Bach flower remedy ‘Beech’ uses the flower of Fagus sylvatica to support tolerance and compassion for others. If you cannot see the good in others or make allowances for their imperfections…then this remedy is for you, beech. Heehee.
Beech trees live up to 400+ years. They grow in length up to 45 metres and the canopy spreads out almost as wide giving it a dome-shaped appearance. This dome-shaped appearance of the beech has inspired ancient architects to design their dome-shaped buildings. The shape, colours of beech has Inspired Celtic artists and shamans also. When found with enough room to grow the trunk is short and stocky resembling an elephant's leg. In our forests the beeches have a tight space to grow into and consequently have long skinnier trunks. Amongst all the other competing hardwoods the beech trunk stands out readily with its grey-silver unusually smooth bark with wrinkles resembling elephant skin. In fact a lot of people find themselves patting this tree! The largest and oldest American beech in Ontario is in the Gibson Hills, Alliston. Its girth is 3.66 m (12ft) and height is 16.46 m (54ft). The second largest is also in Alliston and the third being in Caledon on the Finnerty Sideroad.
A common feature to note in Ontario when searching for the beech tree is the presence of a hand written carving. Knife carvings of initials of a couple in a heart or just bold written names of those who want to be immortalised for several centuries. The Beech can live through 4 centuries.Writing on the thin bark leaves a permanent scar. It's not recommended of course but the urge to write on a smooth beech tree goes back a very long way, historically speaking. The Celtics carved their wishes on a fallen beech stick then buried it to let the ‘tree of knowledge’ decide. In fact, the very first books were assembled with pages of squared beech bark strips with letters carved on them. Ingenious.
Besides finding gourmet mushrooms like Maitake, Black Trumpets, Honey mushrooms and yummy Chanterelles on dead beech logs and stumps, I find Comb’s Tooth, Bear’s Head Tooth and medicinal conks like the Chaga and Fomes also. All of these mushrooms are powerhouses of nutrients, antioxidants and immune-modulating capabilities. Two servings of mushrooms weekly is the minimum one should consume to benefit. Of course this is only a shortlist of the many mushrooms associated and living among and on Beech trees. If you don't stumble upon one of the prize mushrooms mentioned above, never fear as you will stumble across something for sure. Maybe even a rare Beechdrop flower (Epifagus virginiana). It could be an amanita, a bolete, a cort, a milkcap…bring your field guide(s) as you will need it.
It is good to remember that practising foragers build vitality. We need to get out more and go back to feeding ourselves and our families as nothing is more important than vitality. We need to be proud of foraging and protect our harvesting areas. Unfortunately, 98% of Beech trees in Southern Ontario have been wiped out from a parasitic fungus called Nectarine spp. and this fungus has recently entered the Ottawa/Gatineau local forests. If you hike by an affected tree, photo-document it on the inaturalist ‘citizen scientist’ app for research purposes. Please and thank you. If we don’t have good hunting and gathering in our forests we won’t have good conservation. Remember to bring your children to play in the forest and find a carved beech.