Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Noble Beech

For beauty and wildlife benefits, American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a tough tree to top. Sure, it's slow growing and just a little bit finicky, but this is a tree so noble, stately, and giving that it's well worth the trouble and the wait. It grows up to 100 feet high and wide, lives as long as 400 years, and provides food and shelter for everything from caterpillars to black bears.

Aside from sheer grandeur, American beech's chief ornamental feature is its uncommonly thin, smooth, silver-gray bark. This beautiful, unusual bark makes for easy identification. American beech was the first tree I knew as a kid. My sisters and I were lucky enough to have near our neighborhood an old and undisturbed forest of beeches, big enough to get lost in. The massive trunks wrapped in pale gray bark made us think of great stone castles or herds of elephants.

Fall was our favorite time to visit the beech woods. In North Florida, most trees don't really color in autumn, but beeches are the exception, turning bright yellow and amber. The combination of silver trunks and golden leaves made our forest seem enchanted, full of the potential for magic and adventures. As the leaves dropped, the winding paths between the trees (and our little curving creek) became as yellow as the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz.

Fall is definitely American beech's showiest season, but the tree is lovely all year round. Dry, clinging leaves decorate most trees, especially young ones, throughout the winter, and long, cigar-shaped buds appear. When the buds open in spring, the new leaves are a dazzling gold-green and so soft they seem almost liquid. Summer foliage is dark blue-green and provides lavish amounts of shade. A beech leaf is a very neat, symmetrical thing. Oval-shaped and paper-thin, it measures about 4 or 5 inches long and has a sharply pointed tip, parallel veins, and saw-toothed edges.

Winter leaves

Spring leaves
The leaves nourish the larvae of the Luna moth. Curled, clinging winter leaves are cozy hiding spots for spiders, and good foraging spots for chickadees, titmice, and wrens. American beech is an excellent wildlife tree. Hollows in old beeches provide shelter and nesting spots for owls and bats, and sweet, oily, protein-rich beechnuts are a primary food source for more than 30 species. Beechnut fanciers include wild turkeys, wood ducks, red-bellied and redheaded woodpeckers, common grackles, white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. In fall, when the pea-sized nuts are in season, they can make up half of a black bear's daily diet.

Beechnuts were also one of the main foods of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, and as late as the 1850s, sky-blackening flocks of these rosy-breasted, blue-winged birds descended on America's beech forests to feed. "It was upon the mast of Beech nuts that the great flocks fed," Donald Culrose Peattie writes in his classic A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, "and their seeming migration was more exactly a quest, by the million, for the rich harvest of the Beech." Once vast, the beech forests had been largely replaced by farms by the end of the 19th century. "As much by the disappearance of the Beech mast as by mass slaughter," Peattie writes, "were the shining flocks driven to extinction."

American beech is native to eastern North America, from Canada to northern Florida, and is found in moist, well-drained woods. If you're lucky enough to have an American beech on your property, protect it. Trees are easily damaged by drought, poor drainage, and any disturbance to the root zone. American beech is particularly sensitive to the soil compaction and grade changes that often accompany construction projects. If you'd like to establish a beech in your yard, remember that young trees require some protection from the hot summer sun. The ideal soil is loose, rich, evenly moist, and well drained, with plenty of leaf mold. Plant an American beech and do the people and the wildlife of the future a favor.

Sophie and Amanda, in 2008, sitting in the beech tree behind our garage

Another climber in the beech. Mom made this little fellow for me for my birthday.