Beech trees in woods, standing alone in parkland, or grown as hedges in gardens are a special sight. Native to southern and western England and Wales, beech is grown widely and is one of the most popular (with gardeners and birds) plants for a garden hedge.

Common beech (Fagus sylvatica is the Latin name) is one of my favourite trees: it offers so much. It can grow to 40m high – so this is not a tree for a small garden. In its common form, or in the variety of copper beech, it is a wonderful specimen tree in parks and landscaped gardens where widespread branches offer lovely dappled shade. For a less spreading tree (and a large but not huge garden) fastigate varieties (such as 'Dawyck Gold') grow tall and slim, with branches close to the trunk and pointing up create an exclamation mark and focal point.

Enjoy the shapes of beech trunks and branches

On mature beech trees, the smooth grey-ish bark is often marked where branches have grown and fallen, gnarled and twisted by wind. In damp areas a carpet of emerald green moss may cover the whole tree, or lichens hang from the branches with a wonderful array of fungi.

Beech trees in winter

Beech trees in winter offer wonderful sculpted shapes. These are near Manmoel, photographed by Robin Drayton.

Plant and grow a solid and handsome beech hedge

Beech creates a relatively low cost hedge that is easy to plant and care for in most places. The hedges can be clipped to straight lines and once grown will fill the space you want and create an impenetrable barrier. But the really wonderful thing about beech hedges is that stunning autumn leaves stay on the hedge into spring, creating a bronze line of colour for months on end. Why not follow this RHS advice to create a hedge and enjoy the benefits for years to come.

Beech hedges

Beech hedges don't need to be this long to offer a handsome addition to your garden. These hedges were photographed on Abbeystead Lane in NW England by Mr T.

Beech leaves are fantastic!

New leaves are lime green, with silky hairs, growing from a tightly furled shape within a reddish brown bud that gives the tree a rosy tinge before the vivid green leaves shock the senses. As the leaves age, they darken and grow in size and lose their hairs. And in autumn they turn a rich bronze. And once fallen, read our blog on turning leaves into wonderful compost!

And useful too ...

Flower arrangers love the leaves and cut them at different times to preserve different leaf colours (find out how to do it here). The caterpillars of many moths (some rare) live on beech leaves. Medical uses of the leaves were widespread in the past, and when very young and fresh they can be eaten in salads.

Beech leaves

Young beech leaves are a wonderful sight - and the ingredient for beech leaf gin! These were photographed by Edmund Shaw, near Mapledurham.

As new leaves start to show it's time to use beech leaves to make Beech Leaf Gin or Noyau. Here's the recipe from Richard Mabey’s 1972 book (it has been updated and re-issued since then) ‘Food for Free’.

Fill to 3/4 full a 1 litre earthenware or glass pot (which must have a lid) with very young, soft and just unfurling beech leaves. Make sure they still have a soft and silky texture. Pour on a 70ml bottle of gin. Put the lid on and leave the container for two weeks. Strain off the spirit, and dispose of the leaves. To every 70ml of liquid add around 500gm of white sugar dissolved in 35ml of boiling water. (Richard Mabey suggests adding a dash of brandy, but I don’t think it is necessary.) Mix the sugar syrup into the liquid and when cool store the mix for at least a month.

I find it is much better left for 6 months or more. Then the fresh and sweet taste is a welcome reminder that a wonderful spring filled with the green of beech leaves is coming soon.

Cheers to the wonderful beech tree!