European Beech

Un faggio all’interno del contesto vegetale di Villa Crivelli Pusetrla di Limbiate (Fototeca ISAL, fotografia di Anna Zaffaroni)
A beech tree in the plant framework of Villa Crivelli Pusetrla in Limbiate (ISAL Photo Archive, photograph by Anna Zaffaroni)


Set in the background of the pavilions of the former mental asylum adjacent to Villa Crivelli Pusterla in Limbiate, a lane of little-leaf Linden (Tilia cordata) trees guides the visitor towards a mixed wood where evergreen and deciduous-leaf tree species abound. The European beeches (Fagus sylvatica) found here are a fantastic example of broad-leaved trees with silvery barks and smooth shiny leaves, ranging from red to green in colour.

This beech can reach a height of 25 m and has a thick and branched crown which becomes cone-shaped upon maturation. The leaves are alternate and elliptical with a rounded base, and wavy edges and on both sides of the leaves there are 5-9 parallel veins. The upper surface is initially light green and only later turns dark. The leaves are shiny on both sides, even if on the underside its shine tends to disappear as the seasons pass, remaining only at the tips of the veins. The edges are slightly hairy. In autumn the leaves turn golden yellow to then fade into orange and finally reddish-brown.
It is a monoecious species due to its male and female flowers on the same plant, and that bloom between April and May. The male catkins, similar to little spikes are gathered in round tuffs and characterised by long peduncles while the female flowers grow vertically in correspondence with the higher leaf axils. The fruits, which are the nuts, appear in groups of two nuts inside a shell called hedgehogs since they are covered with soft spikes. Widely diffused in the gardens of the noble houses of Lombardy, important samples are found not only in Limbiate, but also in the park of Villa Visconti Borromeo Litta in Lainate, where one can distinguish the beech in the internal Big Garden, dominated by the Galatea Fountain.
It must have been surely more diffused in Italy in the past, so that it was praised by poets for its refreshing shade, as testified to by Virgilio in his Bucolics:
Tytirus, you lying there beneath the shade of a spreading beech,
Wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed.
The wood of this tree is a reddish colour and is used to make furniture and for the construction of beams for railways. Edible oil is extracted from its roots, probably never produced on an industrial scale due to the irregular fructification of the plant and the rugged areas in which it grows. In the past paper was produced from its bark, and the cortex of the branches, containing tannins, and was used against fever and as a tonic against dysentery, due to its astringent effects. The infusion obtained from the leaves has a therapeutic effect in bronchial diseases, and improves respiratory functions.
Various types of beeches are generally cultivated, like the red beech, characterised by dark red leaves and drooping branches. Also the beech, like many other tree species, symbolises the Cosmic Tree, capable of uniting the sky, earth and underworlds.
Macrobius mentions that the plant was considered one of the arbores felices /happy trees and the cups used for sacrifices were carved from its wood. The use of the beech in the production of vases is cited also by Virgil in his “Eclogues.”
At the time of Plinius, there was a temple dedicated to Juppiter fugutalis erected next to a sacred beech. So probably the cult of the beech, dedicated to the supreme god, was later overshadowed by that of the oak, which became the tree of Jupiter. This hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that the Latin writer, Lucian mentioned that the oracle of Dodona issued not only from the leaves of oaks but also from those of beeches.
The tree continued to inspire popular imagination, so that in the past, they believed that it was never struck by lightning. In the forest of Verzy in France, the presence of some monstrous beeches scared the population, with its lower branches that formed a confused and twisted mass, and seemed like a witches’ wood. It appeared that the malformations were caused by a mutation provoked by the fall of a radioactive meteorite in the first centuries of the modern era. The monstrous beeches had already been cited in a scroll of the Abbey Saint Basil of the 16th century and were often the object of conversation when transiting through the shadows in the garden of the noble villas of Lombardy.