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Journey to the Ancient Forests of Italy
In August 2020, I was asked to document in pictures the Italian old-growth beech forests inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. A complex task, but even more so, an extraordinary experience. Photographing a forest may seem rather easy: trees don’t run away. However, the reality is far more... read more
From deadwood, the forest comes to life
Unlike managed and cultivated forests, old-growth beech forests are characterized by the presence of trees in different growth stages. In these dynamic and constantly renewing ecosystems, old and senescent trees facing a slow and relentless decay caused by natural disturbances lead to the accumulation of large amounts of deadwood which... read more
On the “skin” of beech trees
The tree bark is the outermost layer of trees, through which they interact with the surrounding environment. Besides, it protects them from water loss and from parasites, pathogens, and predators. It is constantly evolving and, especially in intact forests, is often home to an amazing variety of organisms and microenvironments.... read more
Beech trees at the service of the environment
Beech forest ecosystems are home to a variety of environments and habitats making them true treasure troves of biodiversity. They are outdoor scientific laboratories of outstanding value for the reconstruction of the climatic history of the territories where they have settled and of the communities inhabiting them. Besides, a healthy... read more
The hidden world of the forest
The beech forest floor is home to a surprising biodiversity. If you look closely, you will see that it is formed by various layers. The most superficial layer is the litter, which mainly contains plant material such as leaves, branches, fruits, and animals. Under it, the decay litter consists of... read more
Ecosystem engineers
When you enter a beech forest, your first impression may be of a dull and scarcely populated environment. But if you look closely, you will discover a true treasure trove of biodiversity. The silence of beech forests – especially in spring – is broken by the several songs of the birds inhabiting... read more
The “lungs” of beech trees

The “lungs” of beech trees

While walking in a beech forest, you might have the impression to be in a Gothic cathedral, since the place is shady and wet. In spring, the thin, furry, and bright green leaves of beech trees gradually become thicker and dark green, and the impenetrable foliage of the tree crowns holds most of the sunlight, almost completely blocking out the sun rays. In this shady environment, the underbrush is considerably limited and many vegetal species do not survive, except sciophilous plants such as the Common Yew and the Holly, which do not need direct sunlight.

In early spring, the young leaves of beech trees are still very vulnerable and sometimes the plant may miscalculate the time of the growing season. When it happens, a snowfall or late frost have serious consequences on the photosynthetic apparatus. According to some studies, the Beech Tree can efficaciously react to these damages by using sugar and nutrient reserves to start a second foliation, replacing the leaves “burned” by frost.

In beech forests, tree crowns must also confront other threats. An exclusive parasite of the Beech Tree is always lurking: the small Beech Gall Midge (Mikiola fagi) is a dipteran which lays its eggs in buds. After hatching out, the larva penetrates in the leaf veins and causes the formation of a gall – a small, spherical ligneous malformation we often see on the leaves as a result of an attack by fungi, insects, or other organisms. These hollow tumoral formations protect the larva until it undergoes complete metamorphosis and becomes adult. But one of the worst enemies of the tree crown is the tiny Beech Leaf-miner Beetle (Rhynchaenus fagi): the adults feed on young leaves, piercing them and laying their eggs. There are times when this insect infestation can destroy most of the foliage.

In summer, the sunlight filters through the high and leafy branches, producing a beautiful play of lights and shadows. The tree crown plays a very important role in chemical processes. In fact, through one of the most important biological processes of the planet – the photosynthesis – plants release oxygen, produce organic compounds, and pull in carbon dioxide.

With the arrival of autumn, the beech forest becomes a multi color palette. Tree crowns are filled with lively colors: the green of the leaves gives way to red, yellow, and orange. This happens when it starts getting cold and the days become shorter and shorter: plants are stimulated to store inside their trunk chlorophyll – no longer needed for the photosynthesis – and to leave in the leaves only sugars and carotenoids, that is the plant pigments responsible for the lively colors. Beech forests are famous for their multicolored autumn foliage falling to the ground and forming a wonderful and picturesque carpet in contrast to the green mosses and gray lichens.

Season after season, the large tree crowns with their colors going from green to red and orange give beech trees their own specific character and identity.

Early autumn in the beech forest - Photo by Francesco Lemma
Beech tree leaves: note the trichomes, or small plant "hairs", on the edge of the leaf - Photo by Francesco Lemma
Green beech tree leaves - Photo by Francesco Lemma
Spring tree canopy in the forest - Photo by Valentino Mastrella

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Project financed by funds identified under Law No. 77 of 20 February 2006 "Special measures for the protection and fruition of Italian sites of cultural, landscape-related, and natural interest, inscribed on the World Heritage List”, placed under UNESCO protection.