Trust The Great Beech For a Bold, Bright Winter Garden

Autumn beech leaves
Beech leaves dry to a striking bronzy-brown

In Phantastes by George MacDonald, a country maiden warns the hero, Anodos, to shun the Ash and the Alder, but says he can ‘trust the Oak, and the Elm, and the great Beech.’ Sure enough, Anodos meets a Beech tree with a voice ‘like a solution of all musical sounds’ who longs to be a woman. She invites him to cut lengths from her hair, and uses them to create a protective girdle of beech leaves for his magical journey.

Beech hedge at Harlow Carr
Beech hedge provides a backdrop at RHS Harlow Carr

All fantasies have elements of truth. Beech marks our boundaries, provides windbreaks, backdrops and privacy screening for the gardener; food for wildlife; and nesting places for birds.

Robin on a beech
Beech hedges attract birds and insects

European Beech (Fagus sylvatica) can live for 250 years or more. Grown as a tree it can reach 45m (148ft). Since Beech clips well, it can be kept at almost any height, making it one of the most popular hedging plants in the world.

Thatched cottage with beech hedge
A traditional beech hedge provides privacy

Beech is increasingly used as deciduous topiary, so you may see it clipped in columns, serpentine or wiggly hedges, panels, domes, beehives, cubes, mushroom shapes, balls or even sliced lollypops on a stick.

Serpentine beech walk at Gresgarth Hall
Serpentine beech topiary design
Arched entrance cut in a beech hedge
Arched entrance clipped in a beech hedge
Beech hedge backlit
Beech hedge backlit

In winter, the plants retain their bronze-brown leaves in patches after they have dried, giving an ethereal, partly transparent look. Eventually the old leaves will give way to fresh spring growth, but until then, their colour livens up winter woods and gardens.

Beech tree in snow
Beech often holds on to its leaves even in the snow
Beech leaves frosted in winter
The leaves are beautiful rimmed with frost

Shared as part of Jude’s Life in Colour: Brown.

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