Adkins Arboretum’s Native Tree of the Year Program highlights the ecological and
ornamental value of native trees to promote their protection in natural areas and
use in cultivated landscapes.
The American beech (Fagus grandifolia), chosen as the Adkins Arboretum 2014 Native Tree of the Year, is a large deciduous tree common to all of eastern North America. It slowly reaches 50 to 80 feet tall—and maybe over 100 feet tall in a forest. The identifying feature of this tree is its smooth bark. It is the quintessential forest. Many loves have been etched “4 ever” on the trunk of this tree. The most famous carving found was made by Daniel Boone in Tennessee: “D. Boone, Cilled a Bar, on Tree, In Year 1760.” The tree was taken down in the 1930s after being struck by lightning.
As a member of the beech family (Fagaceae), American beech is closely related to oaks and chestnuts. Since the demise of the American chestnut, it has become one of the most important food crops for birds and mammals. However, a beech will not start producing its large quantities of beechnuts, or mast, until it reaches about 60 years old. It is an adaptable tree to many soil types and moisture but prefers well-drained organically rich soils and grows well in the shade of larger trees. The pointy leaf buds become dark green leaves with distinct veins and toothed margins. In fall, the yellow leaves stay with juvenile trees through the winter, becoming lighter and lighter until the new leaf buds push off the old leaves in late winter—a harbinger of spring.
Beech trees have a symbiotic relationship, living together with a plant called beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana). Beechdrops is a parasitic plant that gets its food from the beech by ‘stealing’ the sap absorbed from the beech tree through a specialized root structure. Beech-drops is interesting in that it is a flowering plant that has no leaves and produces no chlorophyll. It is often a curiosity seen with beech trees.
Native Americans and colonists dried or roasted beechnuts and also used them as a passable coffee substitute. The wood is fine grained and almost white. Early uses included water wheels and barrels for various liquids. Beech is a favorite for furniture (bentwood rockers), butcher blocks, instruments, and toys.
But with all these attributes comes the beech’s biggest challenge. Beech bark disease is a malady that involves a scale insect and a fungus. It was first reported in the late 1890s in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and has been moving steadily south. The fungus enters the bark where the scale insect has damaged it (or where bears have clawed it or kids have carved initials on it), and the tree will succumb within a few years. There is no control for the fungus, only control of the scale and, of course, natural resistance and genetic variabilities.
Come celebrate the American beech at the Arboretum. Some of the largest beeches found are on the North Tuckahoe Valley Trail. Take a walk in the woods, and be sure to look up.