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If there were ever an Elven tree it would be the stately Fagus grandifolia, American Beech. Beautifully smooth silvery trunks gleam in the deep shade cast by their dark green glossy leaves even into old age. Many pickier birds prefer American Beech stands for nesting and for foraging on insects which live among its leaves and branches. In the fall, beechnuts cluster along its branches, feeding many species of birds, game birds, and small and large mammals. A tree of rich, moist old growth groves and undisturbed forest spaces, there is a hallowed feeling standing in a mature American Beech grove with delicate spring ephemerals blooming at your feet, the new lemony green spring leaves of the beeches rustling in a bright spring sun.
Despite their beauty and value to wildlife, American Beech stands have not regenerated in the modern era because of their lesser value as a timber source, their tendency to sucker vigorously in response to disturbance, which led them to be treated as a nuisance tree during the Colonial and Industrial Eras, and now deer pressure. But this tree holds the lifewebs of North America in its boughs and roots. Its participation at many trophic levels has led it to be described as a “foundational forest species” (Myers, et. al, 2023) and it is one of the Tallamy keystone species (National Wildlife Federation). The only species of its genus in North America, “F. grandifolia is believed to have spanned the width of the North American continent all the way to the Pacific coast before the last ice age,” (Wikipedia, 2023) an interesting fact which points from another direction toward its singular role in the ecosystem.
A tradition of carving graffiti onto the trunks of beech trees is still practiced today because the writing remains intact for the life of the tree due to its perpetually smooth bark. But something of this comes to us from ancient times. According to Wildflower.org, “The first page of European literature was probably written on Beech. It is said, the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of Beech bark. The custom of inscribing the temptingly smooth boles of Beeches came to Europe with the Indo-European people who entered the continent from Asia. (Peattie)”
A Grand Tree
American Beech makes a beautiful specimen tree in a very large park-like area or planted as a grove, but is not recommended for small spaces. While no larger than an oak or maple, it tends to retain its nearly horizontal branches much lower on its trunk into old age, thus needing a wider space around it if planted as a single specimen. It can also sucker vigorously, typically due to damage, causing it to spread clonally into pure stands that can overwhelm smaller spaces. Although it can grow in average (mesic) to slightly dry (submesic) soils, it prefers moist but never wet soil. It has a very dense shallow root system as well as casting a very deep shade, which can make it difficult to grow understory shrubs, forbs, or grass beneath it.
Fagus grandifolia grows dramatically toward the strongest light. This is called phototropism, and Fagus grandifolia has high levels of this. So, planting at the edge of an opening will produce extremely lopsided growth. Plant in full sun or evenly distributed part-shade for better form.
Moist, Rich, Clean
Fagus grandifolia typically grows slowly, but will pick up the pace in moist rich soil. It does not tolerate urban pollution, salt, soil compaction, drought, or flood. For this reason, it is planted far less often than European Beech which is easier to propagate, grows more quickly and endures less than ideal conditions. Based on local observations, this tree probably has specific mycorrhizal associations it needs to thrive, the kinds you find in high quality soil ecology, where the soil is moist, crumbly, clean-smelling, and black. Planting in deeply amended soil, with a particular focus on compost derived from clean hardwood materials, will improve the likelihood for providing the right kinds of mycorrhizae as well as improving moisture retention. Use clean hardwood bark mulch rather than pine bark mulch or commercially dyed mulches.
Although this tree’s preference for high quality soil ecology, its intolerance of flooding, and its relatively shallow root systems may not predispose it to rip up sewer lines, it is safest to plant it well away from septic drain fields and moist foundations.
An Idea Drawn from Nature
If you have the space, try growing Fagus grandifolia with Acer saccharum Sugar Maple as a no-mow shady grove where leaves are allowed to fall and remain on the ground. Both species are incredibly shade tolerant and grow together in climax (old growth) forests (read more about beech–maple forests). Planting trees closer together than the recommended 60′ spacing would work best if evenly spaced so that the brightest light source is straight up. Spring ephemerals grow beautifully in the shade and leaf litter of these two trees. Other compatible species for interplanting include Tilia americana American Basswood, Betula alleghaniensis Yellow Birch, Aesculus flava Yellow Buckeye, and perhaps Prunus serotina Wild Black Cherry or Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock, despite its troubles with the Woolly Adelgid.
Wildflower.org says, “American beech is a sturdy, imposing tree, 50-80 ft. tall, with a maximum height of 120 ft. Its bark is very smooth and light gray, remaining so as the tree ages. Large tree with rounded crown of many long, spreading and horizontal branches, producing edible beechnuts. Branches spread horizontally to form a rounded top and dense growth. Dark-green, glossy, prominently veined leaves turn copper-colored in the fall and hold on most of the winter.”
Fagus grandifolia is deciduous, its leaves resembling birch leaves: pointed toothed ovals, distinctive parallel veins, but glossier and growing more densely than is typical for birches. The pale gleaming bark and pale brown leaves hanging through the winter help with plant identification, as do the long narrow pointy buds in early spring, and small-ish prickly nuts in the fall. It is not uncommon to see beech saplings growing in the understory in Floyd County among oaks, hickories, and pines, identifiable in winter by the horizontal layers of pale brown downward-hanging pointed oval leaves.
Whitish green flowers bloom in April-May, the “male flowers in drooping, long-stemmed, globular clusters and the female flowers in short spikes.” (Missouri Botanical Garden). The female flowers form into nuts.
Not A Historic Timber Resource
Historically, American Beech was not appreciated or exploited as a timber source in colonial and industrial North America. The wood is difficult to cut or split, but is not as heavy as other hardwoods. It rots easily but burns long and well and so was used more often than not for firewood or for bentwood furniture. Ironically, its low timber value caused it be treated as a nuisance tree due to its tendency to sucker into thickets and self-seed prolifically. Currently, it is being explored for flooring and veneer, and is used to fabricate plywood, dowels, bentwood pieces, turned pieces and for pulp.
Food and Dye
Beechnut production can begin as soon as 20 years old but typically begins at 40 years of age, reaching high production at 60 years. “Beech nuts are sweet and nutritious, can be eaten raw by wildlife and humans, or can be cooked. They can also be roasted and ground into a coffee substitute.” (Wikipedia, 2023). Wildflower.org adds the caution “in small amounts.”
The leaves and bark are edible–Wildflower.org recommends cooking the young leaves in the spring. Wikipedia says, “The inner bark can be dried and pulverized into bread flour as an emergency food.” Both can be used to make fabric dyes.
Wildflower.org makes the dramatic statement that “beechnuts are among the most important of wildlife food.” Indeed, the nuts are called mast and feed a variety of birds and mammals, including ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, ducks, bluejays, raccoons, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, pheasants, black bears, white-tailed deer, and porcupines. The tree itself hosts 116 species of Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth caterpillars). Myers, et. al, 2023 add that “many birds prefer large F. grandifolia stems as a foraging substrate, including the pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus), Acadian flycatcher (Empidonax virescens), and scarlet tanager (Piranga olivacea). F. grandifolia trees and snags offer cavities in abundance across a range of forest types, creating appropriate nesting sites for yellow-bellied sapsuckers (Sphyrapicus varius), southern flying squirrels (Glaucomys volans), and wood ducks (Aix sponsa).” The beloved, now-extinct Passenger Pigeon which used to migrate in vast flocks across Eastern North America was closely associated with Fagus grandifolia for food and roosting cover. Their extinction has been attributed to the loss of this tree as a prominent part of the Eastern forest. The functional extinction of the American Chestnut, deforestation in general, and over-hunting have also been cited.
A Keystone or Foundation Species
Our native beech tree is ranked by Dr. Doug Tallamy as a keystone species because of its wide participation in the food webs, including as a host plant for 116 species of Lepidoptera. In his research, caterpillars are posited as an important first step in converting the sun’s light into protein that go on to feed vast scores of birds, wasps, mammals, and other wildlife. Adult Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies) often live out their adult lives as pollinators. Not only do they make many direct contributions, but they tend to be good indicators of diverse highly functioning ecosystems. Myers, et. al (2023) write that “F. grandifolia mast is a critical component in many forest food webs. It serves as forage for mammals at many trophic levels. These specific roles cannot be filled by other species with similar life histories, so F. grandifolia is a foundational forest species.” (Myers, et. al, 2023)
Virginia Heritage Community Types
American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, is a diagnostic member of a number of Heritage Community types statewide. This means that the formal scientific name for that community type includes Fagus grandifolia indicating its canopy dominance, co-dominance, or diagnostic presence.
Cumberland Mountain Acidic Cove Forest
Fagus grandifolia co-dominates the canopy with Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock in coves, valleys, bases of cliffs, and lower slopes in the Cumblerland Mountains, among other locations outside of Virginia, usually in somewhat protected settings in moist, well-drained soils ranging from extremely acidic to somewhat acidic with relatively high levels of organic matter and stone content. [Acidic Cove Forests, USNVC CEGL008407, Tsuga canadensis -Fagus grandifolia / Magnolia tripetala / Rhododendron maximum Forest (G4/S2?)].
Northern Appalachian High-Elevation Rich Cove Forest
Fagus grandifolia co-dominates the canopy with Acer saccharum Sugar Maple and Tilia americana American Basswood on rich, mesic or, sometimes, wet-mesic concave slopes and ravines in the Mount Rogers – Whitetop Mountain area of the Southern Blue Ridge, the highest elevations of the Ridge and Valley and Cumberland Mountains, and Allegheny Mountain in Highland County (1890-3980 ft elevation). Soil pH ranges from extremely acidic to neutral, and from low to high levels of base minerals such as calcium and magnesium. [High-Elevation Cove Forests, USNVC CEGL006637, Acer saccharum – Tilia americana – Fagus grandifolia / Caulophyllum thalictroides – Viola blanda – (Allium tricoccum) Forest (G4?/S4)].
Southern Appalachian Northern Hardwood Forest
Fagus grandifolia co-dominates the canopy with Acer saccharum Sugar Maple, Betula alleghaniensis Yellow Birch, and Aesculus flava Yellow Buckeye in high elevation (3,600 – 5,200 ft) forests on north-facing slapes in the Southern Blue Ridge and Ridge and Valley. Soils are extremely acidic with low base minerals. [Northern Hardwood Forests, USNVC CEGL007285, Acer saccharum – Betula alleghaniensis – Fagus grandifolia – Aesculus flava / Ageratina altissima var. roanensis – Eurybia chlorolepis Forest (G3G4/S3)].
Central Appalachian Northern Hardwood Forest (Sugar Maple – Beech – Black Cherry Type)
Fagus grandifolia co-dominates the canopy with Acer saccharum Sugar Maple and Prunus serotina Wild Black Cherry across the Allegheny Plateau and central Appalachian Mountains at 2,000 to 4,500 ft elevation. Soils are moist to mesic, rich, moderate to deep, acidic to neutral loam or sandy loam, and composed of glacial till or in the unglaciated areas, sandstone or shale on north-facing slopes at high elevations. [Northern Hardwood Forests, USNVC CEGL006045, Prunus serotina – Acer saccharum – Fagus grandifolia / Carex digitalis – Dennstaedtia punctilobula Forest (G4/S2)].
Northeastern Dry-Mesic Beech – Hemlock Forest
This is a provisional forest type in which Fagus grandifolia co-dominates the canopy with Tsuga canadensis Eastern Hemlock [Northern Hardwood Forests, USNVC CEGL008743, Fagus grandifolia – Tsuga canadensis / Dryopteris intermedia Forest (G4G5/S1)].
Piedmont and Coastal Plain Forests
- Coastal Plain Calcareous Ravine Forest, a type of Coastal Plain / Piedmont Oak – Beech / Heath Forests, Fagus grandifolia – Acer floridanum – Quercus muehlenbergii / Sanguinaria canadensis Forest, USNVC CEGL007181, (G2?/S2)
- Northern Coastal Plain / Piedmont Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest, a type of Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forests, Fagus grandifolia – Quercus (alba, rubra) – Liriodendron tulipifera / (Ilex opaca) / Polystichum acrostichoides Forest, USNVC CEGL006075, (G5/S5).
- Southern Coastal Plain Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forest, a type of Mesic Mixed Hardwood Forests, Fagus grandifolia – Quercus (alba, nigra, michauxii ) / Symplocos tinctoria – (Stewartia malacodendron) Forest, USNVC CEGL007211, (G3/S2S3).
- Coastal Plain / Outer Piedmont Basic Mesic Forest, a type of Basic Mesic Forests, Fagus grandifolia – Liriodendron tulipifera – Carya cordiformis / Lindera benzoin / Podophyllum peltatum Forest, USNVC CEGL006055, (G4?/S3).