Many landscapes are defined by one or two of its native plants, shrubs or trees: the heather and bracken of Ashdown Forest; the chalk grassland of the South Downs; the oak woodlands of the Lake District – or simply the bluebells of a local copse. Sometimes, though, an area can offer such topographical diversity that it evades easy or ready associations…
Certainly, the Cotswolds offers a rich and varied landscape and, indeed, is not identified by any single plant – that responsibility is left to Cotswold Stone (a “yellow oolitic Jurassic limestone” to be precise). However, across its 2,000+ square miles, you will never be that far from one particular species – the Beech. Whether it is one of the ancient Beech woodlands; a lone majestic, full-grown tree or the attractive span of a man-made hedge, you will never be too far away from a Fagus sylvatica.
So why does Beech favour the Cotswolds?
The Beech is classified by some as a native species in southern England while others regard it as an early introduction as it has only graced our landscape for the last 6,000 years when, it is believed, Stone Age man (for whom Beech nuts were a favourite food) brought it across from France. Regardless of how the Beech found its way to our shores, having arrived it clearly liked what it found…The Beech is not especially fussy but it does have certain requirements, all of which are met by many areas across England and The Cotswolds in particular:
– Beech is not particularly drought tolerant and regular rainfall throughout the year is needed
– Beech needs a well-drained soil
– Beech needs a reasonably fertile soil, calcified or lightly acidic
– Beech tolerates with enthusiasm cold winters
In fact, the only aspect of our climate that can prove problematic for newly planted Beeches is a spring frost. Because they grow quickly, they have managed to see off other native species when left to their own devices – the Oak, for example, can’t compete unaided in a woodland setting as the Beech soon soars above them and their canopy blots out the sun.
Clearly, then, the Beech is horticulturally at home in the area but, and this is pure serendipity, it also looks like it belongs. Aesthetically, the Beech sits perfectly against a Cotswolds’ backdrop – as will the Purple Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’) unless your soil is acid.
In conclusion, while the Beech may not be officially known as The Cotswolds Hedge, custom, practice and millennia of graceful presence mean the title is nonetheless deserved.