(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 6, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Aunt Bett wanted to go up on the mountain to get some bark from the old beech tree that grew about half way up. I was a little afraid of going because the kids at school told me about the bear. Aunt Bett said there was no bear, and that we would be safe, but I didn't know about that. You see, the kids lived above the school, and I lived below, and if anything crossed the mountain to my side, they would have seen it first. I believed them. They all swore on their pinkies it was true. And they said they saw it and it was as tall as a coal truck and as wide as an outhouse. I told Aunt Bett that those people in Virginia had chased a bear across the mountain and it was on our side, I told her the kids had seen it.
Aunt Bett stopped me mid sentence when she said, "Ain't nobody seen a bear, 'cause if they did, they wouldn't live to tell about it." She was determined to go up on my side of the mountain to that old beech tree, and I was scared to death. I didn't know who to believe, Aunt Bett or my friends. But I couldn't let Aunt Bett go up there all by herself, I had to go to keep the bear from getting her. I took a deep breath. "OK, Aunt Bett, I'll go with you, just so the bear won't eat you!" And so we started up the mountain.
Beechnuts were once a common item on grocery shelves, dried and roasted they were a popular substitute for coffee beans, and a beechnut oil was used for cooking. Fagus grandifolia is a native American tree found from Nova Scotia to Ontario, south to Florida and eastern Texas, and west to Wisconsin and Missouri. It is a medium to large deciduous tree growing to 100 feet or taller. The bark is smooth and light gray with hints of a blue gray. The leaves are alternate about 5 inches long with sharp toothed margins and pointed tips. It blooms in April and May. When mature the yellowish flowers produce spiny fruit like structures that open late in summer to expose two triangular nuts.
In parts of the South, the leaves served as a potherb. The raw nut itself is sweet and delicious to eat, for humans as well as for squirrels, several birds and other animals. I wondered if bears liked beechnuts but I was afraid to say another word about bears to Aunt Bett. Because the beech grows in loamy soils rich in humus, pioneers who spotted it knew they had found good farmland. The one that I remember--the one Aunt Bett and I went to--was fairly high up on the mountainside, but it was located in a naturally flat area that Aunt Bett thought at one time might have been a cornfield. We had never planted anything on it, but I remember there were several places like that on the mountain behind my house.
Being a native tree, the beech has enjoyed a long reputation in America as a source of medicines. Some Native Americans steeped beech bark in saltwater to produce a poison ivy lotion. Beech sap was one ingredient of a syrup compounded to treat tuberculosis in Kentucky. Decoctions of either the leaves or the bark served in folk medicine as an ointment for burns, sores, and ulcers. Internally it was used as a treatment for bladder, kidney and liver ailments. Another treatment was using the leaves or roots to cure fevers and diabetes. The oil from the nut was used to treat intestinal worms. The bark and leaves of the beech tree have astringent and antiseptic properties that account for whatever medicinal effect the plant has. Actually, today the tree is valued more for its wood. It is used in flooring, furniture, crates and handles for tools.
One cautionary word, large doses of nuts may be poisonous to humans and animals alike.
Aunt Bett and I got to the beech tree after about a half hour of climbing straight uphill. I was scared to death, but Aunt Bett climbed as if she had not a care in the world. "What will we do if we run into a bear, Aunt Bett, did you bring something to hit him with? I heard tell bears are so big I'll bet you can't even reach up to his shoulders. Do you think we could climb the beech tree? Can bears climb trees?" Aunt Bett told me to hush up, or I wouldn't have enough energy left to swat a fly, and certainly not a bear.
Whatever we gathered that day I don't even remember, I was that scared. But once we started down the mountain, Aunt Bett said: "Let me tell you about bears, chile. Bears ain't often in these mountains. They live down in the Smokies, and that's pretty far away. And besides, do you hear those birds, chirping? Those birds sound real happy. If there was a bear anywhere around us, Virginia, or Kentucky, those birds wouldn't be sayin' a word. They would be so quiet you could hear them breathin'. Those birds are not one bit afraid of us, but they sure would be afraid of a bear. Now don't you be worryin' about no more bears. Those birds will let us know if a bear is on your side of the mountain."
As always, Aunt Bett was right.
All photos are from Plant Files, thanks to Melody, Kennedyh, and Claypa for their photographs.
Resources: Magic and Medicine of Plants, The Reader's Digest, Inc., New York, 1986
Complementary and Alternative Medicines, Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, Third Edition, 2004