Native Spotlight: Beech Tree

Native Spotlight: Beech Tree

Native Spotlight: Beech Tree

I met my first beech in Kentucky as a child.

She grew next to our campsite at Cave Run Lake and her branches dipped down low enough for me to see. (I think of all trees as ‘shes’ for some reason). Her bark was marred with carvings, but she was huge. Her roots seemed to go down forever. I was so in love that I sketched her leaves, trying to match her colors with the limited number of colored pencils I owned.

The Tree at Big Tree Estates

The Tree at Big Tree Estates

Ever since then, I’ve had a soft spot for beeches. Maybe it’s their smooth bark, maybe the cute tiny nuts or maybe it’s the groan inducing jokes my father would tell (what do you call a baby beech? A son of a beech!) When near a beech tree it’s difficult not to be impressed.

The private drive I grew up on was named after a beech. The area is called Big Tree Estates, and I always wondered what that meant. Then I met her. She lived on the farthest property in the back, on a 5 acre lot whose owner collected plants. She was huge, her trunk so round it would take 5 people to circle her. She is still there, hollowed out from the many years and top missing from a storm. Her owner can’t bare to get out the chainsaw to remove a tree that may have stood when the pilgrims arrived.

Natural History

The beech tree or Fagus grandifolia is an eastern United States native. It once grew all the way to California, but now it mostly stays east of the Mississippi. Not hurt by cold this huge tree tops out at 80 feet, spreading just as wide and living for over 400 years!

Fagus grandifolia range map 1

Range map of American Beech, wikimedia commons

Beeches are climax trees in the forest. This means they are the tree that forest ends with. Climax trees don’t mind shade as saplings so they slowly creep up among the other trees, shrubs and forbs to one day rule the canopy. Beech trees understand patience.

“Beeches are climax trees in the forest.”

It is amazing to think that these huge trees start as nuts the size of a nickel. These seeds are stubborn, waiting for just the right moment to start growing. It is difficult to grow these from nuts as they have a dormancy, moisture and cold requirement. They are also difficult to transplant, their shallow root system dislikes disturbance. When looking for a beech, purchase one from a reputable nursery with a good return policy – but don’t let this frighten you, this tree is worth the effort. Plant it well-drained to dry soil as it is not a fan of wet feet. It does not require extra water after establishment. It is not picky about soil type but prefers deep rich soils.

Beech Tree Quick Facts

  • Zones 3-9
  • Full sun to partial sun
  • Slow growth
  • Well-drained to dry soil
  • Native to eastern United States
  • Host plant, nuts, nesting, sap, flowers

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Standing alone, the beech is a sprawling tree. It will reach as far as it can, casting amazing shade. In the forest, it is tall and straight, heading upward as quickly as possible. It has one of the largest root flairs of trees, making it seem to rise out of the earth like stone or as if it holds to the ground with large muscles. Its bark also reminds one of rock. Trunks have thin, smooth, gray bark that does not crack with age. Summer shows off its medium green leaves turning a golden-brown or sometimes red in fall.

How to Grow

For all of its majesty, the beech is not a flawless tree. It does not tolerate urban pollution. The trees can also become hollow with time.  While this provides a home for raccoons, squirrels, opossums and some birds, it may cause the tree to fall or lose branches so don’t place these near a house. Also, due to the shallow roots and deep shade it produces, it is difficult to plant under the tree so plan accordingly. You will not have a thick stand of turfgrass under a beech tree.

Wildlife Value

Other than providing hollows for mammals, it also feeds a large variety of wildlife. Nuts in autumn are loved by many birds and small mammals due to their high protein and fat content. One can see mice, foxes, deer, grouse, turkey, woodpecker, ducks and blue jays enjoying the feast. The tree’s sap is also food for the yellow bellied sapsucker and the spring flowers are eaten by the Purple finch. In addition to these wildlife benefits, the leaves are host to many moths, notably the Luna and Cecropia moths. It also feeds wood boring beetles, aphids, and leafhoppers. All these insects translate into more bird food for the insect eating chickadees, sparrows and warblers. Finally, due to its size it is a preferred nesting tree for the Red Shouldered Hawk, Pileated woodpecker, Titmouse and Wood Thrush.

Beech nuts have high protein and fat which helps birds survive winter. Click To Tweet

Now that you know more, do you need a Beech tree? Because they are difficult to transplant, I recommend purchasing them from a local reputable nursery. But, if you can’t find one locally, they are available from many State’s Tree Nurseries  or you can order from Cold Stream Farm.

Paige Nugent

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