In Ojibwe, gawe’mîc, beech is the oldest tree name in the world! It’s also an antique edible and old school medicinal plant.
The beechnut tree scarcely grows fruit before it’s 40, 50 years old and produces more with age. Even then, good seed crops won’t happen every year.
They tend to hold onto their leaves through the winter:
Edible Uses of American Beech
American beech nuts used to be a mainstay at the grocer. The sweet nuts taste best after the first hard frost of autumn. You can separate the burrs from shaking or by hand. Then dry the nuts in an open, warm area. You could crack the shells in the oven.
These nuts weren’t just eaten raw or roasted. They were also boiled to skim off their nut oil for cooking (and to light lamps!) Like many nuts and roots, they’ve been roasted and ground as a coffee substitute or ground into a flour. The inner bark is also a starvation flour.
The young leaves can be used as a potherb.
The nuts are high in protein.
Medicinal Uses of American Beech
American Beech is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antiseptic and Astringent. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
While beech tonics were traditionally used for many conditions, common usage includes a decoction of leaves and bark used topically for ulcers, sores, and used in a poultice with basswood for burns including frostbite burns. A lotion was made to treat poison ivy by steeping the bark in saltwater.
Beechwood can be distilled to produce antiseptic creosote which is used in commercial soap and salve products for various skin conditions.
Alternative Uses of Beech
Although it’s one of the easier woods to bend, it tends to crack and warp when drying, so it’s not extensively used in the wood industry.
The leaves have been used in the past to fill mattresses.
Beech shavings can be used to filter hard apple cider and in the vinegar making process! When I write these I put research for plants in files of two per, so I found this interesting considering beech was intuitively paired with apple (to be posted May 1st). Should I say pared?
I have found a few nice stands of mature beech deep in the woods. Beech trees are peppered down alongside my dirt road too, but they are young and have a long way to go before the red-bellied woodpeckers can live off them in winter – hopefully these woodpeckers will still be around when these mature. The woodpeckers survival alone is a good reason to plant some on your own property.
Like sugar maple, it’s highly shade-tolerant (not many trees are! Ironwood comes to mind too.) Beech is definitely in the to plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow set, if the nuts and saving the woodpeckers are what you’re after. It’s a nice ornamental in the meantime.
The nuts contain a saponin substance that can cause gastrointestinal upset if consumed in large quantities.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants