The leaves of the beech tree

At some point during the weeks of early spring, you may come across a somewhat surprising news story in the Danish media: That green leaves have been observed on a beech tree somewhere in Denmark(!).

This piece of news, which some years may be served with an almost ”BREAKING NEWS”-worthy vibe, will include the location of the first, green beech tree. And quite often it seems to be a bit of a competition between the different parts of the country to see, who will be the bearer of the news that spring has indeed sprung.

But why this keen interest in the leaves of a tree? Or rather of this tree: The beech.

More than just a tree
The beech tree is one of the most common trees in Denmark, covering about 17% of the country’s forests. In Danish history and folklore, however, it is much more than “just” a tree: It is one of the national symbols of Denmark, as important as the Little Mermaid and the red-and-white flag.

The beech grew in symbolic worth during the Danish Romantic movement of the 1800s. While the innovations and societal change of the Industrial Revolution grew stronger, the Romantics praised the grandeur of nature in art and literature.

There is a lovely land
In 1819 the Romantic poet Adam Oehlenschläger wrote a poem, which has since become one of the two national anthems of Denmark: Der er et yndigt land / There is a lovely land.

In his poem, Oehlenschläger (whose names most Danish school children dread having to spell as they inevitably encounter him at some point or other) mentions the beech tree as one of the defining characteristics of the Danish countryside and thereby all that is Danish:

There is a lovely land
with beech trees grand aplenty
encircled by the sea.
Her hills and vales are manifold.
Her name of old is Denmark
And she is Freya’s home.

The Romantics loved tales of the national language, culture and history while praising the ideals GOODNESS, TRUTH and BEAUTY – all characteristics, which are evident in Oehlenschläger’s poem: Denmark is not only an ancient country with a proud history. It is the home of Freya, the Norse goddess of beauty, love and fertility. And the beech tree stands sentinel over Freya’s hall.

Beech versus oak. People vs. king.
During the 1800s the beech covered more than half of the Danish forests. And as it was so manifold, the tree became the symbol of the people and the new democratic endeavours of the age. After generations of absolute monarchy, Denmark was moving towards a more democratic rule and its first constitution in 1849.

Generations of Danish monarchs had been symbolically represented by another popular Danish tree: The mighty oak. The oak symbolised strength and longevity and as it was used to build the ships of the royal Danish navy it was strongly linked to the monarch.

However, as the absolute power of the Danish monarch was coming to its end (which happened in 1848), the Industrial Revolution brought steel onto the naval scene, replacing the need for the oak.

Power to the people
Instead, the power of the people was on the rise. And the beech tree – first to turn green in the spring – became the symbol of the new age. The age of the people … or so it seemed to the Romantics who wrote about and painted the mighty beech with great fervour. 

As the year turns and winter moves into spring, it is therefore not hard to infer the symbolic meaning of watching for the first green leaves on the beeches of the Danish forests.

To most Danes nowadays, however, it may well just be a herald of the spring. Still symbolic enough, of course, to be given a spot on the evening news every year.