Plant of the Week
Latin: Fagus grandifolia
Surprisingly, our most stately native tree is almost never seen in gardens. This tree, the American beech, stands as a proud monarch in our forests, but it’s too slow and too temperamental to serve the needs of impatient gardeners.
Perhaps this is as it should be, for as a prince of the woodlands, it seems only appropriate that we make the pilgrimage to visit it instead of this beauty humbling itself to become a silvan lapdog in or backyards.
American beech (Fagus grandifolia) belongs to the same family as the oaks, but, unlike the oaks which have diversified into many species, the beech is represented only by a single species in North America. It occurs throughout the eastern deciduous forest but stays at lower elevations and seeks out the cooler north-facing slopes as it moves south.
In Arkansas, it grows along the major rivers of the Ozarks (especially the Mulberry and Buffalo), in the Ouachitas and along Crowley’s Ridge.
At one time, beeches occupied large swaths of land of the American Midwest where they formed dark, gloomy primeval forests. Its preference for deep, rich fertile ground made it an indicator species during the frontier days of western expansion. Farmers knew it occupied the best ground, so these mighty forests were the first to feel the sting of the axe as land was cleared for farming.
It’s a big, long-lived tree. Trees are usually around 60 to 70 feet tall with a multi-branched crown arising from a stout, smooth gray trunk. Beeches often sucker, so a monarch tree will oftentimes be surrounded by younger saplings arising from its own roots. Beech trees routinely live 350 years, so planting a beech becomes an act of faith.
The foliage of the American beech begins its spring growth as a delicate pale green, then by early summer takes on a translucent blue-green color. In the fall, the leaves turn a delicate gold with young suckers and seedlings retaining their crunchy, brown leaves through the winter.
The long, sharp pointed buds are an easily identified characteristic of the tree during the winter months.
But, unless the tree is small, you can almost always identify a beech by reading the bark. The smooth gray surface of the tree is a temptation few scribes can resist, so even in the back woods it is common to find trees disfigured by some love-struck youth. This has been going on for a long time, both here and in the Old World. A beech along Carroll Creek in Washington County, Tenn., died in 1916. It was inscribed with the message; "D. Boone, Cilled a Bar On Tree In Year 1760."
In fact, the etymological roots for the English word "book" trace back to the European beech, a close relative of our American beech. The Old English word for book, "boc" was derived from the Germanic "bok-jon" which was their name for the European beech.
From this tree early scribes stripped the bark and recorded their first preserved texts. They called these written documents, "bok-o"; now we call them books.
American beech is occasionally offered by nurserymen, but the European species with its many cultivars is more likely to be offered. The European beech is not as well suited to the South, so if you have a hankering to plant a beech, seek out the American species.
Plant it in an open place where the soil is rich and deep and the likelihood of intrusion by roads or construction is minimal for the next couple hundred years. Mixing a bit of soil duff from a native stand of beeches into the planting hole may provide some beneficial mycorrhizal organisms that will help the tree become established.
By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - December 16, 2005
The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.