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Millennium tree No 6:

The Beech

THE INDIGENOUS tree of Dorset, our area of the country, is beech. And, if you have the conditions to suit it, this is a fine tree to plant to celebrate the coming Millennium. It favours lighter soil than oak and colours more dramatically in autumn. But the autumn effects depend on situation.

The wonderful beeches of St Mary's Vale, where I grew up in Monmouthshire, were sheltered between two hills. Still and undisturbed, they coloured dramatically every season. But in our present garden, close to the sea, gales sometimes tear the leaves off the crown before they have had a chance to ripen and fall.

I also fancy that the colour is better on acid soil than on alkaline. But the bark is unaffected by situation - and is a good reason on its own to plant this tree. It has the smooth, dull beauty of old pewter. The winter silhouette is good too, because the twigs subdivide so often on the branches. The outline is airy, fine and graceful.

Fagus sylvatica is our native beech and this would be my first choice. But where the tree is to have a dominant position, on a lawn say, think of using the cultivar `Asplenifolia', the fern-leaved beech. The leaves are deeply cut, which gives the whole tree an even airier look than the ordinary beech. There is a superb specimen on the lawn at Forde Abbey in Dorset. Beeches need space. There is a tree at Kenwood House in London which is at least 98ft tall. At Mote Park in Kent, several beeches have grow to more than 100ft high. The tallest beech in the UK is said to be at Beaufront Castle, Northumberland, which is 144ft high.

Don't be put off by murmurings of beech bark disease. This is nothing like the elm disease which, once again, is killing off elm saplings in hedgerows all over the country. Beech bark disease occurs when a sap-sucking scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) and a fungus, usually Nectria coccinea, get the upper hand after a drought, or some other factor that stresses the tree. It is not fatal.

One of our big beeches was affected after the drought of 1976. The crown died out above the most severely damaged bark, but some clever surgery saved the tree, which is still flourishing.