Beech trees are on my mind lately, and for good cause. They are wondrous sylvan trees of woodscapes (American beeches) and landscapes (European beeches). Life as a beech; let us explore.
Beech Beginnings. Beeches have flowers, male and female on the same tree, that deliver sperm nuclei via the pollen tube to the unfertilized eggs in the ovary and, voila, beechnuts are born. These beechnuts are the fruits of the beech tree and contain seeds.
When these seeds begin to grow they are nourished by their seed-leaves (cotyledons) that provide stored food for the developing seedling until photosynthesis begins with the emerging true leaves. These sun-blessed leaves then provide food for the life of the tree. Take a look under a beech tree for seedlings with two leathery cotyledons that then provide for true leaves; they are very cool.
Beeches Are Not Birches. Beeches (Fagus) are not birches (Betula). Beeches are related to oaks in the Fagaceae family; birches are related to alders in the Betulaceae family. These plant families are fairly closely related, but no ceremonial cigar at the tree hospital. Beech and birch fruits, flowers, leaves, pests and diseases, and their genes are quite different, and never the two shall make congress.
Both do have attractive bark, and some birches, such as sweet birch, even have smooth bark. Come learn tree identification on May 31 at OSU-Secrest Arboretum in Wooster and at OSU-Mansfield on July 31.
Beeches of Many Colors. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and European beeches (Fagus sylvatica) have smooth gray bark and light green leaves, except for, well, exceptions. Copper beech and purple-leaf beech have eponymously colored leaves, and tri-color beeches, with pinks and purples and creams, are very popular foliar variants.
Each type of beech has its preferences. Young tricolor beeches do best protected from blistering sun that accompanies drought; water them when young.
Leave It To Beeches. The leaves of our woodland American beeches have tiny teeth and are less smooth on the edges compared to most European beeches. American beeches in the woodlands will lose their leaves in the late fall and winter like most other trees, but mostly on the upper part of the tree, leaving golden and then silver leaves on the lower portion, often until late winter (they are “marcescent”). This gives these beeches a “skirted” appearance. It is what gives a winter woodland landscape an elvish look.
Fernleaf beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’) has leaves with a ferny look and it is exquisite, often the pride of many a landscape, developing a dense, rounded form over time.
The Ornamentations of Beech Bark. This may be my favorite feature. The elephantine, gray-silver bark of the trunk has little knots. There are eyelashes. There are cool little enations that show themselves when snow arrives. There are eyes. There are wrinkles. I suspect that at Johnson Woods Nature Preserve there are even little round pockmarks made by shotgun blasts, possibly by the same people that deface the trees with their initials, names, slurs and invective that accompany their many-yeared infamy. Hikers, leave them trees alone: all in all, you’re just another lunk in the trunk.
Beech Blight Boogies. Teach your children well about the fascinating multi-kingdom magic of the beech blight aphid, the “boogie-woogie aphid,” the multitudes of which shall squirm at the first sign of your presence on a woodland walk during the warm seasons.
These aphids sip the sap, crap what they do not use as a clear, sugary substance, soon to be colonized by a sooty black and tan fungus that lives on the sugar then hangs out over winter. Quite a scene, sometimes with ants tending the aphids and bees inebriated on the sugary dew. For the tree: no real harm, no foul.
Beech Beasts. Which brings us to more serious concerns. For years now, Ohio has escaped the main effects of beech bark disease, caused by the interaction of a species of the Nectria fungus and a scale insect. Although this problem is found in Ohio, it is not nearly as big a problem as in Michigan and Pennsylvania — go figure — and points east. So far, mostly so good for Ohio.
Now, however, we are very concerned, as I have written before, by Beech Leaf Disease. This is a newly detected problem and Ohio is the epicenter. I have numerous talks this winter about this malady.
It causes clear-cut yellow and dark green banding and puckering on beech leaves and considerable thinning of canopies. And now some tree death. We have many great scientists/naturalists on the case, from John Pojacnik of Lake Metroparks, Connie Hausman of Cleveland Metroparks and Carrie Ewing and Enrico Bonello of Ohio State University.
Still no confirmation as to cause; this is a tough beechnut to crack. Learn about this problem and how to distinguish it from others from the many arborist, parks, and OSU Extension programs throughout the year.
Beeches are wonderful, from the buttresses at the crowns of many larger beeches, to the unusual flowers, and the overall beauty of our beech-maple forests so prominent in our woodlands. Like Thoreau, keep your seasonal appointments with beech trees.
Jim Chatfield is a horticultural educator with Ohio State University Extension. If you have questions about caring for your garden, write to email@example.com or call 330-466-0270. Please include your phone number if you write.