American Beech


~ Plant Highlight ~

Beech trees have very smooth, grey bark that remains smooth even as the tree ages. Photo credit: NPS, public domain

The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a tall, deciduous tree that is native to the eastern U.S. It is the only beech tree native to North America. Other beech species are native to Europe and are sometimes planted as ornamentals. However, when most people in the eastern U.S. talk about beeches they are referring to the American beech.

The American beech can grow to a height of approximately 120 feet, but about half that height is more typical. Beech trees are considered shade loving trees because beech saplings grow in shaded forests. A forest with lots of maples and beech trees in the canopy is considered a mature forest and in the latter stages of succession. American beeches can live to be several hundred years old.

Beeches are extremely important to wildlife, but it can take a while before their importance is fully realized. A beech tree may be 40 years old before it begins to flower and produce beech nuts. Beech nuts are a valuable food crop for a wide range of animals including deer, squirrels, chipmunks, turkeys, woodpeckers, and several species of songbirds. Historically, beech nuts were one of the primary fall foods for the passenger pigeon. It is said that passenger pigeons would flock to trees with ripe beech nuts in such numbers that the weight of the birds would break branches off the trees. As beech trees mature, any cavities that form provide shelter for the many different types of wildlife that use hollow trees. The leaves are also an important food for the caterpillars of several moth species and at least one species of butterfly.

The buds on a beech tree look like long, thin, golden-brown cigars. Photo credit: Plant Image Library, cc-by-sa 2.0 

The American beech tree is one of the easiest trees to learn to identify in the winter. Beech bark is a light grey and is very smooth. Many trees have relatively smooth bark when they are young, but beech bark stays smooth no matter how old the tree gets. Beech bark is often described as looking like elephant legs. I like that description because it perfectly describes both the color and the texture of the bark. Because beech bark is so smooth, it is often vandalized by people carving their initials or other things into the bark. Those scars will never disappear and can allow diseases and pests to infect the tree, just like a cut on our own bodies can allow infections to become established in us.

Beech leaves hang onto the tree throughout most of the winter making them easy to quickly identify. The leaves start out golden then fade to a pale brown, almost white before falling off as the new leaves begin to open in the spring. Photo credit: leoleobobeo, cc-0 

Besides the really smooth bark, beech trees have two other distinctive winter characteristics. The buds are long, thin, golden-brown cigars. No other bud in the eastern U.S. looks quite like it. Dead beech leaves also tend to hang onto the tree throughout the winter. They start out golden colored and then fade to a light brown as the winter progresses. Eventually as the new buds start to open, they’ll push off the old leaves. Young beech trees tend to hold onto more of their leaves and do so for longer than older trees. This makes young beech trees easy to identify, even as you drive down the road, because nothing else has that color of leaves on the tree at this time of year. Once you start looking, I bet you’ll be surprised by just how many beech trees you find in the woods around you.

 

 

 


Shannon is a beekeeper, farmer, wildlife biologist, and author. She owns Grassy Roads Farm and Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting. Busy Bee Nursery & Consulting specializes in plants and habitat consulting services for honey bees, native pollinators, and wildlife conservation. She is the author of Plants Honey Bees Use in the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys. Shannon also writes a blog about Kentucky Pollinators and Backyard Wildlife and a farm and nursery blog that features stories of life on the farm, tips for attracting pollinators and wildlife, and highlights of different plants for pollinators and wildlife.


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