The beech takes its time coming into leaf in late Spring and puts on a great show in Autumn when other deciduous trees have shed their leaves. Among the dark evergreens of Fota, the orange, brown, red and gold leaves seem to glow. Rounding a bend on any given path around the Gardens, they provide a welcome relief from the approaching Winter.
A beech tree overlooking one of the paths around Fota House and Gardens
Huge primeval beech forests grow in the Carpathians, covering hundred of thousands of acres. The same tree grows naturally in Scandinavian countries. Fagus sylvatica (or Feá in Irish), isn’t native to Ireland but was widely planted from the 18th Century and has become naturalised around the countryside now. This European beech is commonly found in large, designed estates or forests, like Fota, where the statuesque tree has plenty of space to grow to its full height.
The average height is 30 m but it can reach up to 50 m in some cases. This can depend on the location of the tree and those growing in more open spaces will spread wide rather than grow very high. The European beech has a life span of between 150 and 200 years but has been known to live for 300 years. It achieves full maturity around 30.
The buds are long and slender, tightly wrapped. The leaves are simple oval shapes, with serrated edges. Beech forests are dark places. Peter Wohlleben, in his book The Hidden Life of Trees, describes how beech saplings grow under 200-year-old mother trees “whose canopies block 97% of the sunlight”. This allows just enough light to keep the young trees alive, supplemented by sugar and other nutrients from the roots of the mother trees, whom he describes as “nursing their babies”. Over the decades, these smaller trees don’t waste their energy trying to grow taller and this energy is put towards protecting themselves from pests or disease. When the elderly parent trees ultimately fall, these “well-raised” saplings will race each other to fill the new sunlit space which has opened up in the forest.
The dark beech wood is a good habitat for fungi. These fungi have a reciprocal relationship with the trees in the sense that they help the host tree obtain nutrients in exchange for some of the sugar the tree produces through photosynthesis. The root system of the beech is shallow, spreading out in all directions. The female flowers become triangular-shaped beech nuts (known as beechmast), with two inside each spiny husk. A tree will produce nuts after 10 years but not in any great abundance until it matures at 30. The profusion of beech nuts at Fota keeps a thriving population of red squirrels in food.
Fagus sylvatica is used extensively for hedging and in this format, it holds onto its leaves throughout the winter. Once established it needs to be kept trimmed but without disturbing the wildlife that make use of it for food and shelter. Ornamental beeches are popular in suburban gardens, including weeping or copper beeches. But one of the most striking planting of beeches is in the form of an avenue. A good example can be seen on the grounds of Doneraile House in North Cork. A more dramatic and now famous avenue is the one featured in the TV series, Game of Thrones. This is an avenue at the entrance of a Georgian mansion called Gracehill House, in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim. It was planted by the Stuart family in the 18th century. Such is its fame now that organised tours visit the avenue.
The beech trees in Fota aren’t quite so famous. But they are much-loved and play an important role in the Arboretum, bringing colour and warmth to the darkest corners. They cast an ancient eye over visitors, volunteers and gardeners on the winding pathways around the estate.