According to a German folk wisdom, in a lightning storm one should avoid oaks and seek out beeches.

German Wikipedia on Volksweisheit:

„Buchen sollst Du suchen, Eichen sollst Du weichen“


beeches you should seek, oaks you should avoid

The German "knowledge site" waswiewo claims without sources:

Das verblüffende Ergebnis: es wurden praktisch nur Eichen und andere Bäume von Blitzen getroffen, Buchen fast immer verschont. Die Forscher vermuten, dass der höhere Feuchtigkeitsgehalt der Eichen die Blitze anzog – eine interessante Erklärung für die Volksweisheit.

Meaning (emphasis mine):

The stunning result: there were practically only oaks and other trees hit by lightning, beeches were almost always spared. Researchers suspect, that the higher humidity of oaks was attracting lightning – an interesting explanation for the folk wisdom.

However, the column Stimmt's? (Is it true?) from this article in Die Zeit from 1998 states without sources:

es gibt keine Unterschiede bei der Blitzgefahr.

which means (again emphasis mine)

There are no differences in the the lightning danger.

which rings true to me, and the same is stated in other sources, but what seems obvious is not always true. (NB: Die Zeit is a quality newspaper and normally reliable.)

The Skulls in the stars weblog quotes a 1889-07-05 article in Science:

ACCORDING to an ancient superstition, says Garden and Forest, the beech is never struck by lightning; and so general has been this belief, that a gentleman recently thought it worth while to write to an English journal that he had been told of a lightning-shattered beech in Ireland. Beliefs of this sort are rarely without some degree of justification in fact, and it would be interesting to know whether in this country the beech has been observed to possess any greater immunity from electrical dangers than trees of other sorts.

And then quotes The Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois, USA as stating:

In a bad thunder storm, people used to run for a beech tree. There is a superstition that lightning will not strike a beech. As a matter of fact, they probably are struck as often as any other tree but without being damaged. Because of the fatty content of the wood, their smooth bark, and their many fine twigs and buds, beech trees are good conductors of electricity. Therefore a bolt of lightning is usually carried down into the ground harmlessly.

But also the University of Minnesota which states (still emphasis mine):

Although no species of tree is totally immune to lightning, some are definitely more resistant to lightning strikes than others. Birch, for example, is rarely struck, whereas elm, maple, oak and most conifers are commonly hit. The reason for the wide variation in susceptibility between species is not clear. In some cases it is because some trees simply tower over others in the landscape, in other cases it is because some trees have a greater ability to collect water on their leaf surfaces (conifers) or to shed water on their bark surfaces (oak). Some authorities attribute the variation among species to the composition of the trees. Trees high in oils (birch and beech) are poor conductors of electricity, whereas trees high in starch content (oak, maple, ash, and poplar) are good conductors. Conifers (pine, spruce, hemlock, and fir) have high resin content. They conduct more electricity than trees with low resin content and are more susceptible to explosion and internal heating.

So, it may indeed not be as obvious at it appears...

A colleague speculated that beeches are struck less because they grow in forests whereas oaks grow in fields, which would mean that the folk wisdom is true but for a reason that can easily be misunderstood, but I could not find a source for this interpretation/explanation.

Are beeches less likely to be struck by lightning than oaks?

Am I safer near a beech than near an oak during a lightning storm?

  • 1
    Note that it is only implied to relate to lightning, but in reality the claim doesn't say anything about electricity as such. 5 times more people die from thunderstorm related falling trees or branches than just lightning… – LangLаngС Aug 16 '19 at 20:25
  • @LangLangC That's an interesting point (including a claim I hadn't heard before). Maybe beeches are struck as often, but more resistant and less likely to fall down upon nearby people when struck? I didn't think of that possibility! – gerrit Aug 16 '19 at 21:37
  • I will point out that there is some danger associated with the roots of the tree. Some trees have roots closer to the surface than others, and thus a person standing under them is likely to be exposed to a higher voltage from a strike. – Daniel R Hicks Aug 16 '19 at 21:39
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    Or maybe the amount of oak trees was just higher? However it came into being, the proverb is just a claim about empirical statistics of harm. That we read 'hit by lightning' into it narrows it down without need. So just looking at a scientific statistic of 'kind of tree struck by lightning' might be misleading, despite being a start and the way it is now notably believed… Great question, very difficult to answer. Looked a bit, no sources. (After every storm I read in the news 'man hit by tree', seldom 'electrocuted during storm' near tree, on golf lane – and that happens relatively often). – LangLаngС Aug 16 '19 at 21:43
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    Some things to consider for an A may be found in the surface structure and how they get wet during a storm. It is said that amount of hits is less important than how well a water Faraday-like cage develops arounds beeches, who then appear less damaged, while oaks are often unevenly wet, leading the energy into the core, where they then more often explode very visibly. No hard sci-evidence, just plausibility, but lightning damage for beeches is indeed a rare image find? – LangLаngС Aug 24 '19 at 9:32

A quick Google Scholar search served me up as the top hit this fine paper from 1912. It concludes that all trees are at risk of being struck... yet it also reports European statistics on "percentage of trees struck by lightning in Europe", with poplar 30.5%, oak 20.5%, and beech at just 2.4%. Since beech is very common in oak-beech forests, one would assume there are fewer beeches struck per capita than oaks; alas, the needed internal standard is not present in this data set. This source also has statistics showing that dry beech is generally less conductive, and it is also more shade tolerant.

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  • But if beech is somewhat resistant to lightening, won't that tend to direct the lightening to someone standing nearby, all full of saline solution ? – blacksmith37 Aug 9 at 15:44
  • @blacksmith37 Resistors don't attract electricity to nearby objects, though the leaves could have that effect if the leaves are highly conductive but the wood is not. – piojo Aug 10 at 6:25
  • Differences in growth patterns (height) and the locations where differnt trees grow could also lead to differences in relative frequency of being struck. E.g. I wouldn't be surprised if smaller trees or species that need very moist/swampy conditions (i.e. that are in the valleys between hills) are struck less frequently than species that grow taller and/or grow on hilltops. However, I'm not aware of very substantial differences between oak and beech in this respect. However, it is not that oaks are hilltop trees and beeches swamp species. And in terms of height, there isn't much of a differenc – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 12 at 22:08
  • ... but if anything, beeches grow a bit taller than oaks. – cbeleites unhappy with SX Aug 12 at 22:13
  • A fine paper indeed and a great find (and only ¢10 ;)). Is it peer reviewed? Was peer review a thing in 1912? Does the letter of transmittal imply endorsement or peer review? The table appears to be not from this study (which mentions its own results later, with more details on methodology but little relevance for beeches or oaks) but from a European study, with numbers apparently not normalised to occurence. I think this fine paper calls for a 21st century followup :) – gerrit Aug 24 at 15:29

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