Sclerophylly and synthesis of phenolic compounds are active responses of plants subjected to environmental stress (drought, low nutrient supply, u.v.-B radiation, ozone). Here we describe the morphological and histochemical alterations occurring in field-grown leaves of Fagus sylvatica L. from three sites located along an ecological gradient: from a site in cool and protected conditions to one located on a mountain ridge, where the trees grow on a thin layer of soil and are exposed to the wind and to intense solar radiation in summer. The morphological data show that, as the ecological conditions of the stand worsen, individual leaf surface decreases, while the thickness of the leaves and their specific d. wt (i.e. d. wt per unit leaf area) increases. Histochemical and ultrastructural tests show a marked increase of phenolics during the course of the year. These substances, present primarily in the leaves of trees growing in stress conditions, have been identified mainly as tannins. They accumulate in the vacuoles, especially those of the upper epidermal layer and the palisade mesophyll; at a later stage they appear to be solubilized in the cytoplasm and retranslocated, eventually impregnating the outer wall of the epidermal cells amidst the cellulose fibrils, where they cluster together and form an electron-opaque layer between the wall and the cuticle. Observation of the epidermal cells also reveals that the outer cell wall is thicker. The paper discusses the roles of secondary metabolites in protection and detoxification processes; the possible ecological significance of these alterations in the ecophysiology of beech trees.