Here on the Green Pinky, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about beech trees!
Have you ever stopped in the woods with someone you loved and used a pocketknife to carve both sets of your initials encased in a heart into the bark of a tree?
If so, you’ve likely, if unknowingly, encountered this specimen. It’s a favorite of star-crossed lovers because of the contrast of its steel-gray bark against its reddish-brown wood. Couple that with the tree’s near inability to heal itself and you’ve got something that’s as good as if you had etched it in stone.
Thin slices of the wood of this tree were bound together to create the first books. In fact, the Old English word for this tree, “boc”, later became the word “book” that we use today.
And its uses don’t stop there. Its wood is coveted by brewmasters that use it to age their beer and flavor it in the last stages of brewing. Its leaves have a flavor that is like kale and can be used in salads.
Although the leaves of its dense canopy make it an excellent shade tree, they are thin as paper and allow sunlight to filter through them. This gives the forest below a yellowish-green tint that truly is a sight to behold.
The beech tree is truly majestic and useful. So, if you think you’d like to carve your initials into its smooth, gray bark once again, read this article first so you know how to care for it and ensure it grows tall enough to be etched in once more.
The English translation for the beech tree’s genus, Fagus, is “a kind of oak.” This is a bit confusing. The beech and oak trees both come from the Fagaceae family. But Fagaceae is known as the beech family. So it seems like the oak’s genus should translate to “a kind of beech” instead. C’est la vie.
The Fagus genus is comprised of 10 to 13 species of deciduous trees that are native to temperate locations in Europe, Asia, and North America. Two species are most commonly found in North America:
- American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
- European Beech (Fagus sylvatica)
They are both slow-growing and have a life span of up to 400 years. In forests, they both have a long trunk without branches. Standing alone, however, they have a short trunk and broad spreading crown.
Let’s examine them separately so you can distinguish one from the other.
The American beech can be found throughout the eastern United States and southeast Canada. This specimen will grow to between 65 and 120 feet tall. It has a stout trunk and high-branching, horizontal limbs that form a dense and rounded crown.
The simple, toothed leaves are dark green and are between 2 and 5 inches long. The small teeth of the alternate leaves terminate each vein and come to a pointed tip. They turn into a golden bronze color in the fall.
The flowers are small and single-sex, with the female flowers appearing in pairs. The flowers bloom after new leaves have appeared in the spring.
The fruit of the tree, the beechnut, will appear singly or in pairs. Beechnuts are three-sided and sharply angled. The nuts are edible and have a flavor that has been described as somewhere between a pine nut and a sunflower seed.
The twigs have long, slender leaf buds that have a scale-like in appearance. The buds are an effective means of identification before the leaves form.
There are two subspecies of American beech:
- F. grandifolia var. caroliniana (Not officially named in Flora of North America)
- Mexican Beech (F. grandifolia var. Mexicana)
This European beech is the most common species in the Fagus genus throughout the world. It has an average height between 80 and 120 feet but can grow as tall as 160 feet. At 160 feet, the trunk can have a diameter of up to 10 feet.
It is like its American counterpart in both how it grows and in appearance. However, some key differences help with identification.
The alternate leaves are dark green and oval-shaped. The leaves will only reach a length of 4 inches and are between 1 ¼ and 3 inches wide. The smaller leaves are one of the key differences that distinguish it from the American species.
The buds are also long and slender and have a scaly appearance.
The small female flowers produce triangular nuts. Mature nuts appear in the fall 5 or 6 months after being pollinated. There are two nuts in each cupule and will not produce a heavy crop until the tree reaches 30 years of age.
The bark is smooth like that of the American species but has a darker gray color.
There are several subspecies of the European species that include:
- Tri-Color Beech (F. sylvatica var. Rodeo-Marginata)
- Copper or Purple Beech (F. sylvatica var. pururea)
- Dwarf Beech (F. sylvatica var. Tortuosa)
- Weeping Beech (F. sylvatica var. Pendula)
Both beech trees are cared for in basically the same fashion. Some key differences will be included for each species. If you don’t find separate categories, then you can use the instructions for both species.
Both of these species grow best in full sun conditions. Although they prefer full sunlight, trees that grow in that condition will wind up being shorter but have a much broader crown.
Beeches can also grow in partial shade. The trees have adapted themselves to grow in these conditions because the dense canopy in beech forests does not allow a great deal of sunlight to reach the forest floor. Younger trees grow at a rate of 1 to 2 feet per year. As such, they are forced to spend many years in the shadows of older trees. They were forced to adapt to the shady conditions to ensure a continuation of the species.
This species thrives equally well in slightly acidic and neutral soils. The soil must be very well-drained and not allow standing water. The optimal soil is loose, nutrient-dense, and loamy. The European species can tolerate slightly alkaline soil with different consistencies as long as it is well-drained.
The American species prefer acidic soil with a pH level that ranges between 5.0 and 5.7. The most important characteristics of the soil are that it is very well-drained and nutrient-dense at deeper depths.
The depth is important because this species’ root system is very shallow, almost to the point of being superficial. A deep soil that is rich in nutrients will encourage a deeper root zone.
Well-drained soil with moderate moisture will discourage problematic fungi.
For newly planted trees, water weekly to ensure the soil stays somewhat moist. Keep this up for the first couple of years to ensure the roots establish themselves.
Mature beech trees are somewhat drought tolerant. However, during extended dry periods, you’ll need to ensure that you’re providing the tree with enough water to sustain itself. The shallow roots grow to wide breadths, so be sure to water the whole area of soil that contains them.
You don’t have to water deeply, but doing so can encourage the shallow roots to grow deeper into the ground.
In the spring, choose a granular fertilizer with a balanced NPK ratio of 10-10-10. Apply 1 pound of fertilizer per 100 square feet of surface area over the entire root zone.
You’ll only need to fertilize your tree in the first and second years after planting. Once the tree establishes itself in the ground, it will not need fertilization.
A wonderful thing about beech trees is the beautiful way they naturally grow. Whether it be in a beech forest or standing alone, they are truly majestic trees. As such, they won’t need much pruning.
Because the bark of the beech is so brittle, you’ll need to prune back branches that are rubbing together to prevent damage. Look for branches growing across one another as well. If you find they are too close together, cut one back to ensure rubbing does not occur.
Prune back the thin branches growing from the root (suckers) and large branches whose weight causes them to hang down. They both can weaken the tree. You’ll also need to cut back any damaged or broken limbs to prevent disease and further harm.
You must bandage the tree everywhere you cut them back to reduce the chance of disease.
Prune beeches in the winter to promote healthy growth in the spring. The latest you should prune is in early spring, before the leaves have appeared on the branches.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re planting and growing your beech tree.
Choose an Appropriate Planting Site
Your beech tree is going to be around for generations. By the time it matures, it can be over 70 feet tall with a spread that matches its height.
The best planting site is one where the tree has room to grow without inhibition. Try to choose a location with 4 to 6 hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight every day. They can tolerate shade but does best in full sun.
Find a spot with well-drained soil that stays somewhat moist. Ensure the soil is somewhat acidic and allows for the free flow of nutrients, water, and air. If the soil is compacted, aeration may be necessary before planting to ensure healthy growth.
The roots can spread great distances and will grow near the surface. Plant the trees far enough away from hardscape features so they are not damaged by the sprawling root system.
Remember, when grown individually, these trees will develop a marvelous growth habit. It will have a wide, rounded crown and broad, spreading branches. Give it room to grow.
Amend the Soil
When planting new trees, amend the soil at the planting site with organic compost. Sphagnum peat moss is the preferred material. It will provide sufficient nutrients for the young tree. The compost will also boost the soil’s fertility and support the establishment and healthy growth of the root system.
A 2 to 3-inch layer of sphagnum peat moss or other organic compost should be placed around the planting site before digging. Mix the organic material into the first 6 inches of topsoil before you plant it.
Before planting, saturate the root ball with water. This will provide moisture to the bare roots and hydrate them before going into the ground.
The hole will need to be slightly shallower than the root ball and 2 to 3 times wider. Cultivate the amended soil in and around the hole to ensure it is loose. This environment invites the roots to grow outward rather than staying within the confines of the hole.
The top inch of the root ball should be raised above the soil level once planted. So, carefully backfill the hole with the amended soil and adjust the tree as necessary.
Once planted, water the soil until it is moist but not saturated. Water weekly until it is established.
Secure the Base
Newly planted trees are vulnerable to the wind because of their shallow depth. They can be shifted and even pulled from the soil.
To prevent this, drive stakes on opposite sides of the tree. Secure the base of the tree to the stakes with twine or other light rope. You’re not trying to influence the tree’s growth habit, so leave a little slack when you tie your rope to the stake. The slack will keep the wind from shifting the tree while allowing it to grow as nature intended.
Remove the Competition
Because the beech has shallow roots, it is constantly in competition for nutrients with weeds and other unwanted vegetation. It’s best to stop this contest for nourishment and remove the competitors from the area.
Once you have cleared the weeds, add a 3-inch layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree in the spring. This will keep the weeds from returning and help the soil retain moisture for the roots.
Beech Bark Disease
This disease results from a collaboration between a foreign insect and opportunistic fungi. The beech scale insects will penetrate the thin beech bark to gain access to the sap. The open wounds left by the beech scale provide harmful fungi an opportunity to infiltrate the bark.
The fungi will allow the disease to manifest itself as cankers in the bark. At a minimum, it severely compromises the aesthetic of the tree. The worst cases can cause it to die.
This disease is very difficult to control if you are not a professional arborist experienced with the disease.