American Beech

Fagus grandifolia

by John Brouwer

“Dick Loves Jane” and other such carved endearments seem to be the irrestible fate of the smooth-barked beech. Go into almost any woodlot and you will find beeches with scar tissue messages from previous generations. As far back as 37 BC in Rome, Virgil wrote: “Crescent illae crescetis amores,” (As these letters grow so may our love,) a passage from his pastoral poems ‘Eclogues.’ The ultimate more contemporary message was found on a tree in Kentucky “ D. Boone, Cilled A Bar, On Tree, In Year 1760”. That tree trunk section is now in a local museum.

Beech can grow up to 80-90 feet and have a trunk diameter of 20-24 inches. In the forest the trunk is very long with a small oval crown. In the open limbs reach out 10-15 feet resulting in a wide rounded crown. Beech can live for 300-400 years.

Beech nuts are triangular and fit snugly between the ends of one’s thumb and fingers. Nut crops are profuse and are a main food for ruffed grouse, wild turkey, bobwhite, pheasant, raccoon, red and gray foxes, whitetail deer, cottontail rabbit, opossum, porcupine, gray, red and flying squirrels. And beech nuts sustained the swarms of passenger pigeons. The older beech trees in our Carolinian forests produced nuts which fed these now-extinct birds.

Settlers found that beech woods indicated good agricultural soils. This was not good for the trees as they were soon cut down and burned. And in doing this, settlers also contributed to the demise of the passenger pigeon as they removed the pigeons’ major food source.

Beech wood is used for flooring, furniture, turned products, veneer, plywood, railroad ties, baskets, pulp, and charcoal. Because if its high density and caloric value, it is a favoured firewood.

Beech nuts have always been a human food. Evidently the easiest way to gather the nuts was to rob a squirrel’s cache. Beech bark was steeped in salt water to produce a poison ivy lotion.

In the forest beech is found in mature forests along with sugar maple and hemlock. The young seedling through sapling stage is shade tolerant and consequently can grow and reproduce in shady conditions where most other seedlings can not survive. There is an example of a mature sugar maple, hemlock, beech woodlot just down the trail running alongside the conservation area.

Beech has the ability to grow new shoots from its root system. These shoots can grow into independent mature trees. Where soil conditions are right, beech can use this to out-compete the sugar maples and hemlock to create stands of only beech.

Most mature beeches to the east have become infected by beech bark disease, introduced into Halifax from a load of European wood before 1900. The disease infects the bark resulting in extensive scar tissue which eventually turns the smooth bark into rough scales. Severely infected trees may die. (One could question why wood was being imported into Nova Scotia from Europe!!)

Landscapers have tended to use European Beech instead of our native beech. A favourite is the Copper Beech of which we have two in the co-op in front of block six. I have not been successful in germinating beech nuts, but was able to obtain beech seedlings from the conversation authority this spring which are now planted in our garden tree nursery.

June 2009