Plant Guide > Trees > Beeches > Beech Tree

Beech Tree

Beech TreeBeech (FagusAniericana, Sweet.)-A round-topped or conical tree, with horizontal or drooping branches, and dense foliage; 50 to 75 feet high. Bark close, smooth, pale grey, or darker, often blotched; branches grey, twigs brown, shining. Wood light red, close grained, hard, strong, not durable, tough; lustrous when polished. Buds alternate, tapering, 3/4 to 1 inch long, brown, in silky scales. Leaves oblong-ovate, strongly feather veined, saw toothed, pointed, smooth, silky or leathery, green on both sides; autumn colour, pale yellow, persistent till late. Flowers monoecious, May, staminate in pendant balls, few at base of leafy shoot, yellow-green; pistillate, solitary or paired, in axils of upper leaves, short-stemmed, in scaly involucre. Fruit, October, a prickly bur containing 2 triangular, pale-brown nuts, sweet, edible, in thin shells. Preferred habitat, rich river bottoms. Distribution, Nova Scotia to Lake Huron, and northern Wisconsin; south to Florida, Missouri and Texas. Uses: Beautiful ornamental and shade tree. Wood used for chairs, tool handles, plane stocks, shoe lasts, and for fuel. Nuts fatten hogs, and feed wild animals and birds.

We have but one native beech, and it is a clannish tree. Find me a single specimen in the woods, and I will show you a miniature forest of beeches springing up around it as soon as the tree comes into bearing. Squirrels carry the nuts, so do the bluejays, and the wind helps to scatter them. Beech nuts have much vitality, and the seedlings grow well, even in dense shade. This gives them a distinct advantage over the young of many other trees. Seeds of sun-loving species must fall in the clearings if they hope to grow. In a few years there is a dense beech thicket, with only large trees of other kinds. When these are cut out the area comes to be called "the beech woods."

In April and May we may see the germination of beech nuts. The gaping burs and three-cornered nuts lie in plain sight under the tree. A nut splits along one sharp edge and a slender root protrudes. I t grows downward and burrows in the leaf mould. The stem emerges at the same time and place and extends in the opposite direction. It is topped by a crumpled green bundle, which unfolds directly into a pair of short and broad seed leaves, totally unlike the leaves of the beech tree.

In this case the triangular shell clings but a little while to the growing plantlet. Oftener, however, the opening is just wide enough to let the root out. Then the stem carries the shell up and wears it like a helmet until the leaves within spread themselves and cast it off.

Young beech trees are very weak and pale and twisted at first. They lean helplessly against dead leaves and twigs for support. But ,N-hen the roots get a grip on the soil and the leaves turn a brighter green they become quite independent. A shoot bearing true beech leaves rises from the bud between the two seed leaves, which soon wither away. In the fall a long whip set with winter buds represents the first season's growth.

From now on the life of a little beech is just like that of a twig on an older tree. The opening of the long, pointed buds is a sight worth watching. If one has not time to go to the tree every day in spring he may bring in some lusty twigs, put them in a jar of water in a sunny window, and see the whole process exactly as it happens on the tree.

Each bud loosens and lengthens its many thin bud scales and a leafy shoot is disclosed which elongates rapidly. Daily measurements will show a wonderful record for the first few days.

As the scales drop off a band of scars appears on the base of the shoot, like the thread of a small screw. When the last of the scales has fallen this band may be half an inch wide. Each such band on a twig means the casting off of the bud scales-the beginning of a year's growth. Counting down from the tip of any twig, the age may be accurately read. Add one year as each scar band is passed. Often the band is quite as wide as the length of the season's growth.

It is plain to see that the leaves in the opening buds were all made and put away over winter, and that they have only to grow. As the shoot lengthens the outer scales fall, and each leaf is seen to have its pair of special attendant scales, each edged with an overhanging fringe. The leaf itself is plaited in fine folds like a fan to fit into the narrow space between the scales. Each rib that radiates from the midrib bears a row of silky hairs which overlap its neighbour's, so that each side of each leaf is amply protected by a furry cover. As the leaf spreads itself it gradually becomes accustomed to the air and the sunshine, and the protecting hairs disappear. Occasionally a leaf that is in a shaded and protected situation on the tree may keep its hairs on the ribs until midsummer.

As the leaves lift themselves into independent life the blossoms of the beech appear. Few people see them. The staminate ones are in little heads swung on slender stems. When they shed their yellow pollen they falloff. In twos the pistillate flowers hide near the ends of twigs. Those which catch pollen on their extruded tongues "set seed" and mature into the triangular nuts, two in each of the burs. Early in the autumn the burs open and the nuts fall, to the great delight of boys and girls as well as the little people of the woods. Though small, the nuts are very rich and fine in flavour.

The beech is the most elegantly groomed of all the trees of the woods. Its rind is smooth, close knit and of soft Quaker grey, sometimes mottled and in varying shades, and decorated with delicate lichens. The limbs are darker in colour, and the brown twigs, down to their bird's-claw buds, shine as if polished. Through the long summer the beech is beautifully clad; its leaves are thin and soft as silk. Few insects injure them, and they resist tearing by the wind. In the autumn the first touch of frost turns their green to gold, and they cling to the twigs until late in winter. Young trees in sheltered places hold their leaves longest.