The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 20, 2009


American Beech

The warm golden tones of the American Beech can be seen in stands at the Great Brook Farm along the Heartbreak Ridge and Tophet Trail. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Name: The American Beech tree is Fagus grandifolia. It is native to North America but closely related to the European Beech, Fagus sylvatica. The genus name, Fagus, is the Latin word for beech. It came into Latin from the Greek “phegos” which means oak! This is not as mixed up as it may at first seem. The oak and the beech are both large majestic trees with edible nuts. Taxonomists of more recent times have also seen similarities and put the oak, beech, and chestnut all in the same family and named it Fagaceae for the beech. The species name, grandifolia, is from the Latin words “grand” meaning large and “folium” meaning leaf. The leaves of the American Beech are longer than those of the European Beech.

Where seen: The American Beech is one of our fairly common deciduous trees. There are stands of it in Great Brook Farm State Park along Heartbreak Ridge and the Tophet Trail. A good while back, before the ice ages, American Beech grew all the way west to California. Now, except for a subspecies that grows in the Mexican mountains, it is a tree of eastern North America, from Canada down to Florida. Some botanists believe that the American Beech of the southern states is a different species from the one we see here. Michael Dirr in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants sees it this way. “There are differences of a trivial nature, much akin to the differences in accents of people from Boston and Atlanta.” He’s a tree man; he doesn’t mind going out on a limb.

Identifying characteristics: The American Beech is just as easy to recognize in winter as in summer. First there is the smooth, gray, almost-silver bark which seems to be a magnet for young lovers whose carved initials will outlive their juvenile emotions. Black bears, raccoons and fishers will inadvertently mark the bark. Bears are very fond of beech nuts and will climb the tree to get them. The most storied inscription on beech bark is the one in Tennessee on a tree estimated to be 365 years old when it fell in 1916. The inscription, still there, was “D Boone cilled a bar on tree in year 1760”.

Second, there are the leaves (especially on lower branches) which tend to stay attached until spring. After the maples have finished their flashy fall fling and the leaf peepers have left, the beeches have a reward for those who stay. On a clear winter day when there is snow on the ground, a sunlit view of the golden brown leaves warms your heart and soul. It brings new meaning to a “day at the beech.”

Third, you can identify the beech in winter by its slender sharp-pointed buds which are up to an inch long.

The smooth, gray, almost-silver bark of the American Beech has been known to attract the carvings of young lovers. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Bentwood, bedding, barbarians and books: Beech bends easily when steamed and is a favorite for making bentwood furniture. Prior to the days of memory foam mattresses and sleep number beds, beech leaves were used to stuff mattresses. John Evelyn wrote in 1670 that they “afford the best and easiest mattresses in the world to lay under our quilts instead of straw; because, besides their tenderness and loose lying together, they continue sweet for seven or eight years long; before which time straw becomes musty and hard.” Long before that, “barbarians” in northern Europe inscribed runes on beechwood tablets to record we know not what. Our word “book” is derived from the Proto-Germanic word for beech.

Beechnuts: Beech trees produce a good quantity of nuts when they are about 40 years old and larger quantities by age 60. From that time on, they will have a bumper crop about every third year. The nuts have about 22% protein and are an important source of food for a lot of wildlife. The list would include bears, opossums, foxes, white-tailed deer, red and gray squirrels, chipmunks, mice, wood ducks, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, and blue jays.

Sources: Online etymology at; Trees of New England - a Natural History, by Charles Fergus; Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada, by William M. Harlow; Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, Michael A. Dirr; USDA Forest Service at (search for American Beech). ∆

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