As you go through the woods in spring, you should watch the trees when they break out into leaf. One of the prettiest is the Beech Tree (1, plate, p.36), You may know it in the middle of winter by its olive-grey bark, its tall, smooth trunk with a broad crown of branches on the top, and its brown sharp-pointed buds which grow one after the other, now on one side, now on the other of the stem. How different they are from the thick buds of the horse-chestnut, and yet they keep the little leaves inside quite as safe and warm.
Pick one of them to pieces in the early spring, just before they burst open (see p. 41). You will find, first, a number of shiny brown scales folded tight one over the other. Then inside these, some transparent scales as soft as silk, wrapping round the delicate tiny leaves which are folded up like a fan, and have a fringe of silvery hairs on them. Lastly, in the middle, the tender growing tip lies safely hidden.
A few days later these bright green leaves will open, and the scales hang loosely below them, while the silken fringe now shows as hairs under the leaves. Each leaf is oval and notched at the edge, and the twigs on which they grow droop at first, and then slowly raise themselves. By the time the leaves are full grown the brown clusters of flowers are hanging among them.
Those with the stamens in them are soft and silky, and hang on long, thin stalks; but those with the seed-boxes, stand up on short stalks near the end of the twigs. There are two or three of them on each stalk, with their sticky horns standing up, and a number of prickly scales round them.
These scales are like those we saw round the acorn. They grow into a hard husk covered with prickles, and by-and-by quite shut in the two or three little nuts. But when autumn comes, the "beech-mast" (2, p. 36), as it is called, falls down, the husk bursts open into four pieces, and then you see inside the three-cornered nuts with the withered horns still on the top.
Now, why do you think these scales grow into Such a hard husk and shut in the fruit, and why do they burst in the autumn? Because the squirrels and field-mice feed chiefly on beech-nuts, and if there were no husk to protect the nuts while they are green, they would be eaten before they were ripe. But now the husk falls and bursts, just when they are ready to grow. The tree can spare a good many to be eaten, if the squirrels and other animals tread a few into the ground or bury there so that they grow. Beech trees spring up so well from seed that there is no need to plant them. But if you want to keep a beech wood healthy and cut it down for timber you must take care of it. The trees live for more than two hundred years, though they are ready to be cut down when they are about ninety years old.
Good foresters cut down one block at a time, so that there is always some part of the wood getting ready for timber. In the part they are going to cut, they first clear away the other kinds of trees and the young stunted beeches, so as to let in the light and air.
Then they wait for a year or two, till there comes a season when the beech-mast is good, and the seeds are strong and will grow well. This happens generally about every three or four years. Then they begin to thin out the trees for timber, and so to leave room for young seedlings to grow up and begin a new crop.
After this they go on cutting down some every year, and clear that piece of the wood in about ten years or more. By that time the new beech-trees have a good crown of branches and leaves on the top and go on and grow, while the forester begins to cut down another part of the wood.
If the beech-tree is pretty in spring, it is still more lovely in the autumn, when its leaves turn a bright red, and by-and-by fall and make a lovely carpet of leaves in the wood. The young beech-trees keep their dead leaves on all through the winter, and so do beech-hedges, which are kept cut and not allowed to grow into trees.
There is another tree you know well, which shuts up its fruit in a husk made of prickly scales. This is the sweet or Spanish chestnut (3, p. 36), which the Romans brought to our country, and which now grows in the woods, or is often planted in the avenues leading to big houses. It opens its leaves later than the beech, and does not bloom till July. Still by October the nuts are ripe, and the husks burst open on the ground. And when you pick up the nuts to take them home to roast, you may notice the dry remains of the flower making a kind of bristling fringe on their points (4, p. 36). Quite late in the autumn the chestnut is a lovely tree. Its long narrow leaves, cut in sharp points at the edge turn a beautiful golden brown and hang on a long time.
Many beams of old houses are made of chestnut, and the trunks of the young trees are made into hop-poles. Beech-wood is used very largely for making chairs.
The Birch and the Alder are both trees with catkins and hard-shelled fruits like the beech and the oak. They flower in the early spring before the leaves are fully out. The alder grows near streams or on wet ground. The birch you will find in the woods, and know it by its slender, graceful trunk, marked with brown, yellow and silvery streaks, its purple-brown twigs, and its dark green leaves—these smell very strong after rain, because the resin oozes from them. Some diseased birches have large tufts of twigs growing on the upper branches, looking like crows' nests.
Bring, in spring, a beech branch with its buds. Bring, in autumn, beech-nuts and chestnuts in their husks. Compare a chestnut, which is a fruit, with a horse chestnut, which is a seed. Find Birch and Alder fruits.