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Sunday 15 September 2019

Beechnuts - small and edible, if a bit unpleasant

Roughly triangular beechnuts ready to fall from their protective,
spiny husks
Roughly triangular beechnuts ready to fall from their protective, spiny husks

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

Hints of the approach of autumn are growing stronger by the day, none more so than the rapid swelling of mast.

'Mast' is a word with many shades of meaning. Essentially mast is an umbrella term to cover all of the fruits of the forests. Some people use the word to refer specifically to acorns and beech nuts; others broaden it to include other forest bounty like apples.

The broadening spawns two more terms: 'hard mast' for fruits like acorns, beech nuts and walnuts, and 'soft mast' for tree fruits like apples and even fruits like blackberries, the mast of under-shrubs.

Wild animals feed on mast both hard and soft when it falls from the trees onto the ground. In the distant past, woodland mast in autumn time was a bonus for domestic pigs so the word mast still often implies fallen fruit lying on the ground rather than fruit hanging on the trees overhead.

And the final shade of meaning of the word 'mast' is that it refers to a bumper year when an abundance of fruit is produced. Why trees produce more fruit in some years and not in others is poorly understood. The fact that they do is well-known. Even more intriguing is the fact that some species appear to synchronise bumper crops resulting in 'mast years'.

Beech mast is also known as beechnuts. The nuts are small in size, roughly triangular in shape and are edible. Each nut is contained in, and protected by, a spiny husk or burr. When the nut ripens it falls to the ground from its protective husk. It is edible and while rich in fat and oil it is bitter, even astringent, and unpleasant to human taste.

Fossil pollen grains from a Beech tree have been reported from Galway possibly suggesting that the species once grew in Ireland long ago. However, the species is generally not regarded as being native.

Beech is native to Asia, North America and parts of Europe. It has a smooth, silvery, bluish-grey bark and a wobbly trunk. Its leaves are oval, glossy and emerald-green. Though it is a deciduous tree, the leaves are slow to fall in autumn. A Beech hedge can hold its withered red-brown leaves well into the winter, even to the following spring when new shoots force them off.

Beech casts a very deep shade so few plants can survive under it in the litter of slowly-rotting leaves and mast husks.

Wexford People

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