On Tuesday of our Champagne tour, we visit one of my favourite spots of our week – the Faux de Verzy.
Faux comes from the old French word fau, meaning beech. The plural is Faux, and in the context of the Faux de Verzy, a ‘fau’ refers to a strange-looking stunted version of beech tree. In this forest a fau can also refer to a dwarf oak or a dwarf sweet chestnut, but there are only a dozen or so of the dwarf oaks, and even fewer chestnuts.
These dwarf beech trees are not a unique phenomenon to Verzy, there are other populations in Germany, Swden, Denmark and elsewhere in France. But in all of these other locations, the number of trees is too few to be confident about their future. With over 1,000 examples, Verzy is the principal collection of dwarf beech trees anywhere in the world.
What Are They?
Most obviously, they’re little. Beech trees, genetically, but they only grow to a maximum of of about 5 metres high. They take on strange shapes, and have dense, mishapen branches. Joan of Arc is said to have climbed into a fau at Verzy to sit, on her journey to Reims with the future King Charles VII of France. In France, anything Joan of Arc did, or is alleged to have done, is a big deal in France.
They are long-lived trees. Not the 800 years of legend, but there are 350 year-old trees at Verzy, compared to the normal span of 200 years for a full-sized beech.
They are particularly good at layering – the process by which a branch or shoot reaches the ground, and grows as a new, independent, plant.
They’re also good at anastomosis – whereby the branches of a fau can weld with the branches of other trees, and even other species.
Their abilities in layering and anastomosis are thought to explain why they have been able to thrive in Verzy. Faux can also produce seeds, but they’re not very good at it. Only 10% of their seeds germinate, and of those, only 40% turn out to be dwarves.
What is the cause?
The faux in Verzy date back at least as far as the 6th century, and there have been some wild explanations over the centuries. It’s not poor soil – when transplanted to richer soil, the trees retain their dwarf characteristics. And in Verzy, there are far more full-sized beech trees that thrive perfectly happily. Locally, there is a widespread belief that it’s caused by a genetic response to local conditions. Not true – when the trees are transplanted or grafted in other areas, they retain their dwarf aspects. Likewise, historically some have suggested poor soil at Verzy, but not only do dwarf trees retain their dwarf aspects when reproduced elsewhere, but full-sized beech trees far outnumber the dwarf variety even in Verzy.
The most likely explanation, compatible with the latest research at Reims university, is a genetic mutation caused by a pathogen, such as a viral or bacterial infection. But although they have been able to identify the genetic mutation, they haven’t yet been able to identify the pathogen that caused it.
The strangest phenomenon of all are the ‘chimera trees’. These are dwarf beech trees found in Verzy that have full-sized branches growing out of them.
When I read about the faux de Verzy, I was curious, but not much more than. But they are strangely captivating, beautiful little trees. This is a delightful place to spend a bit of time.
Here’s a bit of trivia for you. Ae you familiar with the Roman theatre of Lutèce in Paris? Veterans of our Paris tour might remember it. There is a tiny, 2 metre-high fau from Verzy, planted in 1909.