– by Dave Schroeder
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one of the most easily recognized trees in the forests of Connecticut. Its smooth, light gray to blue gray bark is like no other tree found in these parts. The terminal bud (technically it is a American beechpseudoterminal bud) is ¾ to 1 inch long, slender and shaped like a lance. In the winter the tree stands out because it retains its withered, tan or light brown leaves until spring, a characteristic called marcesence. American beech is the only member of the genus found in North America. One should be aware that a considerable number of a close cousin, European beech, Fagus sylvatica, have been planted as ornamentals in Connecticut. The copper or purple-leafed, cut-leafed and weeping forms of beech you might encounter are European beech cultivars.
The American beech is long lived and can reach the age of 400 years or more. Since it requires much more water for growth than most other hardwood species it is seldom found on sites where the surface dries out quickly. Cool, moist sites such as ravines provide ideal habitat. It can often be found growing and reproducing in the deep shade along with another very shade tolerant species, eastern hemlock. Since beech sprouts from the roots it is not uncommon to see numerous young stems surrounding the parent plant (sons of beeches). The young trees persist in the understory until the parent dies and then they start to reach for the sky. In well-stocked stands beech self prune very well and produce a straight trunk with a relatively small crown compared to open-grown trees, which have short, thick trunks, spreading limbs and massive crowns.
Beech starts to produce large amounts of seeds at about age 40. Normally good seed crops are produced at 2 to 8 year intervals. The fruit is a 4-chambered bur, with weak spines, that contains 2 or 3 nuts, which are triangular in cross section. The fairly large seeds are high in fat and important to many species of wildlife, particularly squirrels, chipmunks, wood ducks, turkey, ruffed grouse and blue jays. Black bears, which are becoming more common in Connecticut, are also fond of the seeds. Historically, beech nuts were an important food of the passenger pigeon. Present day uses of beech wood are for furniture, flooring, veneer, cutting boards and tool handles. Because of its high density and good burning qualities it makes an excellent fuel wood.
Beech is subject to a serious disease called beech bark disease. This is an unusual disease resulting from a partnership between a scale insect and a fungus. The insect makes wounds in the bark through which a canker fungus gains entrance. Over time the combination results in extensive areas of dead bark and eventually the death of the tree. Not too many years ago foresters were not particularly concerned about beech bark disease because there was no market for beech. Nowadays with an increase in the value of beech there has been greater effort to find a control for the problem.
This article by David Schroeder originally appeared in the March 2002 ECFLA/WDLT Newsletter