American Beech is a large North American native deciduous tree rowing 60 to 80 feet high (but some will reach 120 feet) with a straight trunk and with a rounded crown of long spreading horizontal branches. Low branches are maintained and the canopy provides dense shade.
The bark is light gray, smooth and thin on the trunk and all branches and on old trees is said to resemble elephant skin.
Twigs are slender, somewhat zigzag, brown to reddish-brown in color with long, thin reddish-brown terminal buds that are covered with long pointed overlapping scales. Lateral buds diverge sharply from the twig as they grow. Young twigs have lighter colored lenticels and prominent ring-like bud scale scars at the end of the prior years growth.
The leaves are alternate, 2-1/2 to 5-1/2 inches long, elliptical to ovate with a long pointed tip, with many pairs of lateral veins, each lateral vein ending in a sharp tooth. Veins are sunken on the upper surface and appear as ribs on the underside where there can be some fairly long fine white hair along the mid-rib. The surface color is a shiny green, appearing almost waxy. Leaf bases are sub-cordate to tapering with a very short stalk that has whitish hairs. Fall color is yellow to coppery brown. Young trees hold some leaves over winter.
Flowers: American Beech is monoecious, that is, the male and female flowers are separate on the same plant. The male flowers appear in globose 3/4 to 1 inch diameter yellowish heads hanging on 1 to 3 inch long stalks. These flowers have sepals that are united, 6+ stamens. The female flowers occur in clusters of two to four on a short spike. These have yellowish-green coloration, distinct sepals and 3 carpels and styles. They are surrounded by reddish bracts forming a bur-like structure
Seed: Fertile flowers produce a cup-like capsule with the spiny bracts on the outside. Brown to reddish-brown at maturity, it then opens to reveal triangular, ridged, brown nuts that are sweet and edible. These are paired in the husk, rarely there may be 3. Beech trees require around 40 years to produce a decent crop of seeds. Seed matures in the first season.
Habitat: American Beech is a forest tree that grows in well drained sandy, loamy or clayey soils, in either full or partial sun. It has moderate drought tolerance. It grows from a broad and shallow root system and resists transplanting. Suckering can occur from the shallow root system. Due to the low spreading branches and dense canopy it is a background tree where it has lots of room. Trees can be affected by Beech scale which in-turn invites a fungus that invades the area and kills the bark. Control of scale reduces the problem.
Names: The genus name Fagus, is the Latin name for the Beech, there being both a European and American species. The species name, grandifolia, means 'with large leaves'. The author name for the plant description, ‘Ehrh.‘ refers to Jokob Friedrich Ehrhart (1742-1795), German botanist, pupil of Linnaeus, director of the Botanical Garden of Hannover and the first author to use subspecies in botanical literature.
Comparison: This species is similar to the European Beech and to the American Chestnut.
Above: Trees growing in close quarters and more shaded will have more upward tending branches as this specimen show. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 1st photo - Bark is smooth and thin, light gray. 2nd photo - Terminal buds are long and thin with overlapping scales. 3rd photo - Twigs are reddish-brown with light colored lenticels and prominent ring-like bud scale scars.
Above: While the leaves are alternate on the twigs, they are closely clustered together on very short stalks.
Below: The leaves have many pairs of parallel lateral veins, depressed on the shiny leaf surface, each vein ending in a sharp tooth. On the underside (2nd photo) the veins are prominent with some long whitish hair on the mid-vein.
Below: 1st photo - The male flowers occur in globose yellowish heads, hanging on a long stalk. (photo ©Virginia Tech.) 2nd photo - The female flowers produce a spiny capsule that contains triangular ridged nuts that are often hollow. These are paired in the capsule. (Photo ©Gary Fewless, University of Wisconsin.)
American Beech is not indigenous to the Garden nor is it native to Minnesota. However it has been in the Garden some years as Eloise Butler notes below, but its first census appearance was in 1986. In North America it is found in the eastern half of the Continent, generally east of the Mississippi in the U.S. and in Canada from Ontario eastward except Newfoundland and Labrador.
Uses: Beech wood is whitish and is often used in toys, cookware, furniture, tool handles, cutting boards, for making charcoal and for barrels to age beer. It is very resistant to decay when in water. In previous times beechnuts were avidly collected in the fall. After a frost the bur is easily opened and the thin shell on the nut likewise easily opened. These nuts were, according to Fernald (Ref. #6) well liked and marketed in the northern areas where the trees regularly set seed. More southern trees tended not to fruit well. While the tree is very close to the European species, Fagus sylvatica, the Europeans tended to think the nuts were only good for animals, except in France where a vast industry was started that pressed the nuts for table oil. Botanist Andre Michaux wrote in 1779 that in some districts of France the Beech forests yielded 2,000,000 bushels of nuts. When carefully prepared, Beech-oil was said to rival the best olive oil.
Eloise Butler wrote: "I ate but little at the table when beech leaves were young and tender. I do not know how delectable their acid would seem now, for I have but one small beech in the garden and no leaves to spare for experiments. The beech barely reaches the eastern border of Minnesota," from Children's Forage Plants in the Wild Garden, Jan. 1915, unpublished.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"