We have a few legendary Europeans around town, some of them lined up on Blake Street just east of San Pablo Avenue, and currently all dressed up. They’re European beech trees, Fagus sylvatica, and quite a few of them are the copper variety, Fagus purpurea or Fagus sylvatica atropunicea depending on how old your information source is. Their leaves are deep burgundy, like a purple-leaf plum’s; you can tell them from plums by their smooth silvery bark, their larger size, and their fruit—beechnuts! (In no way does that fruit resemble chewing gum or baby food, and if that doesn’t make sense to you, ask someone older.)
Living as street trees, these fellows probably won’t ever reach their potential maximum size. The species can get 50 to 60 feet tall and almost as wide in its spread. It’s naturally graceful, even pruned miniskirt-high as our street trees are. In the middle of a big lawn or meadow, its branches can sweep wide and almost touch the ground, for quite a different grande dame effect.
They look good with the petticoats off, too, all leafless in winter, because of the graceful and coherent way they ramify. (Yes, “ramify” has a literal meaning too. Listen to a few bonsai artists chatting sometime; good ramification is a prized quality in a tree. Don’t you love it when these invisible metaphors jump out of the abstract and wiggle around?)
You also won’t get to see, in street trees, the effect that Tennyson referred to when he mentioned sitting on a “serpent-rooted beech.” Senior beeches in forests and fields show an impressive tangle of muscular surface roots around their trunks.
Beech is a member of one of the oldest and formerly most widespread ecosystems in Europe, the great mixed-hardwood forest. People have used its pale, fairly tough wood for structures, furniture (where it’s popular right now, as veneer), useful objects like tool handles, and even charcoal for thousands of years; archaeologists find bits of it all the time when digging up pre-Roman settlements.
It also has had an economic effect for a long time, via that funny little nut it bears. The beechnut is rather like a small chestnut, and like a chestnut is covered by a prickly burr.
The ornamental trees on our streets generally drop a small and almost meatless version of them, but beechnuts inspired trademark names because they’re sweet and nutritious in the original wild form. Like chestnuts, but a bit less of a prime cut, they have been gathered for food even by the poorest of the poor in, say, medieval Europe, and thus been the bottom line in that economy. In places where the forest remains, so does the practice of gathering those free nuts. Where countryfolk are less desperate, they drive their pigs into the forest to fatten on the mast, the aggregated nourishment of chestnuts, acorns, beechnuts and such, on the forest floor.
Speaking of invisible metaphors, I’d bet there’s someone reading this who hadn’t until now noticed that the verse about “Here we go gathering nuts in May, nuts in May, nuts in May…” is a blatant absurdity, rather like “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”
The latter doesn’t translate well to this continent, where cuckoos (such of them as remain) do indeed have proper nests; cuckoos in Europe are nest parasites, laying their eggs among other species’ broods the way our cowbirds do, and not bothering to build their own homes.
But, while many nuts are available in groceries year-round, and while they do keep well, they’re basically a fall harvest here as everywhere. Even in our time, with tomatoes bouncing in from Chile and New Zealand in midwinter, the more perishable nuts like chestnuts appear only in late summer and early autumn. Nut trees seem rather less amenable to greenhouse culture and forcing than the average annual vegetable… no big surprise.
Nuts from American and European beeches are tasty, but hard to find in stores. Their abundant oil sometimes gets pressed and used in cooking, even substituting for butter in French recipes. They’re also ground and roasted to make a coffee substitute, and if Peet’s doesn’t get a little more consistent in carrying chicory to make New Orleans-style coffee, I might have to resort to beechnuts myself.3