Fagus sylvatica
European beech

Fagaceae (beech family)
Europe, West Asia
Fagus sylvatica leaves, fruit, seed. John Rawlings

To trace the origin of the word “beech” is an exercise in Indo-European linguistics showing, surprisingly, that beech and Latin fagus are descended from the same root. Latin got the word from Greek phegos which, besides meaning the beech, meant edible, and sometimes meant oak. The place-name Buckingham refers to the beech forest. As you look at the beechnuts hanging in their burrs with the soft curly spikes, contemplate the beechnuts and acorns that were once the food of Europeans’ forefathers. Try one of the three-sided nuts. Beech mast is now food for pigs in Europe.

Those found on the inner slopes of Frost Amphitheater are copper beeches, a horticultural variety of the European beech. A young tree is thriving northwest of the intersection of Galvez and Escondido malls, with leaves just over 2 inches, some of them prickly, that turn dull brown in the fall. Another has been planted in 2006 in the circular planter at the head of Lasuen Mall near Braun Music; the ground cover is star jasmine.

Young copper beech near Braun Music Center. John Rawlings, Jun 2006

Also see copper beech in Palo Alto at the Art Center, 1313 Newell Road near the Green Room entrance, and at 3756 Cass Way, visible in the backyard on the right side of the house. Of great interest on campus is a raised bed in the center of the small courtyard at the north end of the Education Building containing a pendulous dwarf purple beech ‘Purpurea Pendula’, with bright red fall color. Also of interest is the unusual young tree, variegated purple and pink, at 901 Mears Court.

The black beech of New Zealand, which has no ancestors in the temperate regions of the Southern Hemisphere, is cheerfully known as Nothofagus solandri (from Greek nothos meaning illegitimate). It goes back to the time before South America and Australia (also South Africa) parted company with the Antarctic continent, which was then not glaciated. The extensive black beech forests of New Zealand climb to the snow line and show rich winter color. Though the leaves are much the same as those of the northern beeches, they are not much more than ½ inch long. The tree should grow well in California, where calcareous soil can be avoided; there is a fine specimen of N. solandrii in the walled garden at Filoli in Woodside. Other related species are in New Zealand, and more in Australia and Chile.

In Roman times, the North European barbarians were writing in runes on beechen "tablets" and it is thought that the English word “book” traces back to this practice; the German Büche for beech and Buch for book have a closer resemblance, while Old English bōc stood for both. It is striking that the trees along the back tier of Frost Amphitheater on which inscriptions have been inflicted are the beech trees.

About this Entry: The main text of this entry is from the book Trees of Stanford and Environs, by Ronald Bracewell, published 2005. Braun Music location added by John Rawlings (c. 2006).