Creature Feature: American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

By Emma Dean, CG Science Editor

American beech do not lose their leaves even during the winter. Photo by Emma Dean.

 Though once believed to have a range that  covered what would be the continental United States until the glacial period, American beech currently maintains a slightly lesser native geographic habitat, which is still quite impressive.  American beech covers the eastern U.S. and Canada from Florida to Quebec, as well as Utah.

Indigenous to North America, European colonists recognized the tree as a relative of the European beech and gathered the beechnuts to extract the oil which is similar to olive oil.  The beechnuts, which persist through winter, can become somewhat of a litter problem, but not the leaf litter due to the fact that after turning a lovely bronze color, the leaves stay on the tree throughout winter.  As autumn ends and winter begins, the leaves become less bronze and resemble thin, curled parchment paper.

Due to a shallow root system, grass does not sprout beneath the tree.  This is not entirely noticeable because the short trunk allows the branches to nearly touch the ground.  Its roots are unique, also, in that they routinely develop root suckers, which is when the root system is the site of new growth that then grows upward and out of the ground to form new branches and essentially a clone of the original tree.  Entire beech groves have been known to grow from the roots of a single tree.

American beech is notorious for having incredibly smooth, light grey bark even as it advances in age.  Though not necessarily beneficial for the tree, American beech is also notorious for being a favorite for carved initials and dates which are preserved indefinitely.

The limbs of American beech are near to the ground. Photo by Emma Dean.

Fast Facts:

  • American beech is a larval host as well as a nectar source for Early Hairstreak.
  • American beech is at home in the following states:  Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin, West Virginia and also Washington D.C.
  • This beech is often associated with the extinct Passenger Pigeon, which consumed beechnuts and roosted in its branches.
  • A few minor pest issues that affect American beech include powdery mildew, aphids, canker and beech bark disease.
  • Though it has a slow growth rate, American beech will grow to a height between 50-70 feet.
  • The general lifespan for an American beech is 300-400 years.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

USDA Plants Profile

UConn Plant Database

Native Plant Database

American Beech

The Virtual Nature Trail at Penn State New Kensington-American Beech

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