Beeches are attraction for many months
By JIMMY WILLIAMS Special to The Messenger
Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 8:01 pm
The American beech tree (Fagus grandiflora) is among the most majestic of native trees. Great forests of beeches once covered most of the eastern United States and even today they are prominent in old woodlands.
Beeches, including the American and European (more of which anon) are long-lived trees when sited to their liking as to soil and climate. Witness old beeches extant in our own county that are well over three feet in diameter and far into their second century, thus making our short list of “permanent” trees to mark some monumental event or another.
As with most long-lived trees, beeches are slow, though not as slow, in youth, as a white oak or ginkgo. Too, beeches’ great canopies can spread to monstrous proportions when the tree is grown in the open, making it suitable for only the most expansive grounds and well away from any dwelling. Even trees in the wild, ensconced in deep woodland, are capable of crowding aside neighbors to force their branches into a large area.
The American beech bears little nuts that provide forage for squirrels, birds (particularly blue jays), deer, turkeys and even ducks when the trees are flooded by seasonal rains. These are enclosed in little burs resembling those of an imaginary miniature chestnut. The actual nut meat is tiny.
In their younger years, American beeches light up the woodland understory with their clinging leaves which hang on until new ones push forth in spring. By this time of year they have turned a pale parchment color after turning to deep brown in fall. This is a great attraction and holds forth each winter until the trees reach some 20 feet tall or so.
Sometimes old cemeteries have populations of ancient beeches, most probably planted by squirrels in times past. Their boles invariably turn hollow after a half-century or so, but this seems to weaken them little if at all. Many a squirrel holes up and raises a family in hollow beeches.
American beeches aren’t the easiest trees to transplant. Containerized ones from a nursery (hard to find) are the best bet. Small wild ones can be moved with care. Try to find a specimen no more than about waist tall. These can usually be identified in winter, the best time to transplant, by their clinging leaves.
Now, the European beech, Fagus sylvatica.
These, strangely enough, are much easier to find in nurseries, even though they are harder to grow here, not approving of heat. There are numerous cultivars of the European beech available, while the American beech has not a single one as far as I know.
The British Isles, Europe and the northeastern United States have olden specimens of European beech that obviously have thriven for centuries. Summers in those parts are much cooler than here. At Longwood Gardens near Philadelphia there is an allee of monster purple-leaved European beeches, with the characteristic gray, elephant-hide bark for which all beeches are noted, that were planted by the eminent du Ponts in the distant past. They are 100 feet tall or more.
The purple (actually maroon)-leaved kinds of European beech are more popular than the green ones. There are, also, fine weeping forms with either green or purple leaves. I have a young one of the latter that is just getting its land legs. I have my fingers crossed.
The most magnificent of all the European beeches is the variety Tricolor, with leaves of deep purple fading to pink. I saw several of these a couple of years ago while on a garden tour in northern Iowa and another large specimen in Moline, Ill. All were knockouts, particularly when backlighted by the sun. In that happy condition they literally glowed in shades of brilliant red and pink.
In my long ago youth, I was squirrel hunting with my trusty .410 shotgun out on “the ridge” at the end of Clifty Road, just about where Highway 69 South now crosses the Whitehead lands. I had sneaked into the woods well before sun-up, and posted under a big beech the squirrels had been “cutting.”
At first light, a squirrel, sure enough, tentatively eased from his den in the hollow beech and started crawling toward the end of a branch where the desired nuts grew. As I was drawing a bead there suddenly broke into the dawn silence an explosion of enormous intensity, and I jumped what seemed like six feet off the ground. Joel Phelps, who lived nearby, had the same idea I had and was already ensconced under that same beech before I arrived. Neither of us had any idea the other was there. If you don’t think a high-brass 12 gauge shell going off unexpectedly no more than 20 feet away isn’t a shock, you’ve got another thing coming.
Editor’s note: Jimmy Williams is production superintendent at The Paris Post-Intelligencer, where he also writes this column.
Published in The Messenger 2.10.09