Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

American beech in winter

An easy tree to identify

  • Q. Which tree trunk in this photograph is an American beech?
  • A. The American beech is the second large trunk from the right.

American beech (Fagus grandifolia) can be easily identified, even at a distance and even in winter, by its very smooth, silvery-gray bark. A strong second hint is the bleached-out, dead leaves still clinging on the tree in January.

Beeches grow throughout most of the eastern United States. Where you see one beech tree, you will often see several. The American beech is the only member of the beech family known to reproduce through root suckers. Root suckering of beeches is more common in the northern part of its range, where thickets of beech or many saplings clustered around a larger trunk may be seen.

Beechnuts are a valuable wildlife food. In American Wildlife and Plants, authors Martin, Zim, and Nelson list 17 species of waterfowl, game birds, and song birds that eat beechnuts. Animals that have been observed eating the nuts include black bears, deer, beavers, red and gray foxes, porcupines, squirrels, chipmunks, mice, and of course, squirrels. Deer also browse the leaves and twigs.

Along the rural backroad of Todd County, Kentucky, where I photographed this beech, half a dozen beech trees grow within a hundred yard radius of this tree. This group of beeches grows on a northwest-facing, steep, fairly moist hillside above a small, narrow valley ("holler") where a creek flows.  I think the location could be described as a "messic ravine." 

In maturity, the American beech is a tall, broad tree -- up to 100 feet in height and 75 feet in width. Beeches are slow-growing trees that usually live 200-300 years, and they are strong-limbed trees that resist weather damage. The beech in the photo is probably several decades older than I am!

10 comments -- please add yours:

How It Grows said...

Nice description of beeches.

JimK said...

While hiking off-trail in the NW Adirondacks, I once came across a huge beech tree, at least 60" inches in diameter at chest height. About half the tree had a massive scar around its trunk and sticking out of both sides of the scar were the rusted remains of a two-man cross cut saw. I have no idea how that tree survived such a massive cut, much less why the old lumbermen would have abandoned their work. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera and I was so far off trail I doubt I could ever find it again.
I also remember reading a book where I was young with the riddle "What is the beach that fears the shore?" The answer was the beech tree, because the wood is not terribly rot resistant.

frank@new york city garden said...

I love the beech, especially in winter with its ghost-like leaves. Funny you say "holler" where we'd say "hollow".

Genevieve said...

Jim, thanks for the amazing story about the cross-saw.

Frank, on a topographical map of Kentucky, many of the hollows have names. In the vicinity where this photo was taken, you could visit Jones Hollow, Turnpike Hollow, Happy Hollow and Dead Man Hollow, and "Hollow" is how it's spelled on every map. However, every rural resident who was born and reared in this area would call them "Hollers".

ramblingwoods said...

I am happy to find this blog as I have become very interested in trees....Michelle NY...

Genevieve said...

Michelle, I hope you continue to find the blog interesting. Thanks for reading!

Mast Tree Network said...

I love the pale bark of beeches. It's always a pleasure to come across one on hikes.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Other beech tree lovers like myself. I describe myself as obsessed with them, actually!! ha I want to buy some to plant on my property, but I live about 12 miles from Atlantic City, New Jersey and wonder if it's too close to the shore and if the soil isn't right for them to grow here. There are certainly no native ones in south Jersey. The closest beeches I know of are in southwestern New Jersey and central Jersey (not far from the shore) at a park where there's a huge wood of mostly beeches. Anyone have any ideas about whether they think I could grow a beech here? I'd love to be a "johnny Beechseed" for the area!

Genevieve said...

On the USDA Plants database map for beech in New Jersey, it looks like beeches grow in most areas of the state. They like damp slopes with good drainage (they do not tolerate standing in water), and they need a soil pH of 5.5 to 6.5, according to Gary Hightshoe's Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Rural and Urban America.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Genevieve, for the link to the USDA Plants database and explaining that Beech trees like damp slopes and good drainage. That makes it clear to me why they don't grow here in southeastern New Jersey--the land is extremely flat and there are swampy areas in many places. I thought perhaps the soil was also simply not rich enough to support beech trees. Guess I won't be attempting to grow any on my land, although it's still tempting to try! ;-)

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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