A common specimen in forests of the Eastern U.S., the American beech has a trunk with smooth gray bark, 2 to 3 feet in diameter. The leaves are up to 5 inches across, oval or elliptical in shape, dark green in color with prominent veins that end in toothy edges. Yellowish green flowers appear from April to May, and the female flowers give way to triangular-shaped beechnuts. The foliage turns golden bronze in fall. This is a large tree, often growing to 80 feet or even more. Although sometimes used as a landscape tree, the American beech is not well suited to urban conditions; it does not like even low pollution levels. Left unattended, the shallow roots will readily sucker, gradually forming a thicket of trees.
This is quite a slow-growing tree, generally adding no more than 6 to 9 inches per year, very gradually achieving a mature height. It is normally planted as a bare-root specimen in late winter or early spring.
Though ripe nuts are quite edible, unripe nuts contain small amounts of a mild toxin known as fagin, confined mostly in the skin of the nuts. Large quantities of unripe nuts need to be consumed before ill effects occur, but this does occasionally happen with dogs and grazing animals. The American beech is less toxic than the European beech, but there are instances of poisoning, usually in the fall, when dogs or other animals eat the fallen nuts.
|Common Name||American beech tree|
|Botanical Name||Fagus grandifolia|
|Plant Type||Deciduous tree|
|Mature Size||50-80 ft. tall, 40–80 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Medium moisture, rich, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic (5.0–6.5)|
|Bloom Time||April to May|
|Flower Color||Yellowish-green (not showy)|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Eastern North America|
|Toxicity||Unripe nuts are mildly toxic|
American Beech Care
The American beech is a deciduous tree in the Fagus genus, which also includes the European beech (Fagus sylvatia), another popular landscape tree. American beech (F. grandifolia) appeals to native plant enthusiasts, though in many ways is inferior to the much more popular European species.
It can be difficult to find a container-grown American beech tree at your local garden center, because they grow very slowly and a container grown tree would be unreasonably expensive for the nursery. But you can usually buy a bare-root American beech online. Late winter to early spring is a great time to buy and plant a bare root tree (it can also be done in fall). Soak the bare roots overnight before planting. (If you purchased a ball-and-burlap tree, soak the ball thoroughly with a hose as you prepare a planting hole).
Choose a planting spot with deep, well-drained soil and where there is plenty of room. The American beech tree occasionally becomes over 100 feet tall. Even at half that (the more common height for it in the landscape), this is a specimen meant for large properties. Newly planted trees can be susceptible to the wind, so it's a good idea to drive a stake and tie the tree trunk loosely to the stake for the first few months of growth. However, at this point, the stake should be removed, as the tree will develop better long-term strength if the wood is allowed to flex in the wind.
Like most large shade trees, American beech prefers full sun (six or more hours per day), but it will also do quite well in partial shade.
Of all the conditions recommended for American beech trees, the most important is a deep, well-drained soil. A soil that drains well will discourage fungi. And furnishing a deep soil may help discourage the shallow rooting so problematic for this tree. Shallow rooting can wreck nearby hardscape features, causing sidewalks and driveways to heave.
This plant has average water needs. Make sure it gets about 1 inch of water per week through rainfall and/or irrigation. Do not allow water to puddle around the tree, as this can cause root rot. Fully mature American beech trees will tolerate short dry spells, but this is not a tree well suited for a long drought.
American beech is beset fed annually with a balanced fertilizer. In early spring, apply 1 pound of fertilizer per 100 square feet. Spread it over the ground directly under the tree's canopy and water it in.
Types of Beech
There are no named cultivars of the American beech, but there are some excellent versions of the European beech that should be considered:
- European beech (Fagus sylvatica): This is a very similar tree to the American beech, but with a slightly darker bark and a less dense growth habit. It is also much more tolerant of pollution and urban conditions. Several good named cultivars are available.
- Copper beech (F. sylvatica 'Purpurea'): This is a notable cultivar of the European beech, with beautiful coppery-purple leaves.
- Tricolor beech(F. sylvatica 'Purpurea Tricolor'): This is another good cultivar of the European beech. It has very unusual variegated leaves with pink, white, and green colors. It is a smaller tree, growing to a maximum of 30 feet.
These trees will readily sucker from the shallow roots. Keep these suckers cut away as they appear. Damaged or diseased limbs can be removed as you notice them. With diseased branches, it is fine to cut them back to a point a foot or so below the diseased area.
American beech tends to develop a low canopy, so if you prefer a more towering tree, cut away low branches. Because large forks tend to be weak, it is best to remove one of the two branches as these forks appear. This will be easiest to do as the tree is young and still developing; mature trees will probably need an arborist to do the trimming.
Late winter or early spring, before the tree has begun active new growth, is the best time to perform major trimming for shape.
Propagating American Beech
The American beech is such a slow-growing tree that DIY propagation is rare. That said, it can be done fairly easily, both by seeds and from stem cuttings. Here's how to propagate a new tree from stem cuttings:
- Using sharp pruners, take 6- to 10-inch cuttings from the tip of the branch, from new wood no more than 1 year old. The fall is the best time for this process.
- Remove the bottom leaves and soak the cut end in a bucket of water. While the branch soaks, fill a small pot with a mixture of potting soil and wood-based compost (such as pine bark composts).
- Dip the cut end of the branch in rooting hormone, then plant it in the prepared potting mix.
- Moisten the potting mix and cover the pot with a loose clear plastic bag. Place the pot in a bright location and continue to grow it until roots begin to develop and new leaves begin to sprout,
- Once the cutting is rooted, remove the plastic bag and continue to grow it indoors over the winter (or on a patio, if you live in a warm climate). By the following spring, the cutting can be planted in the landscape to grow into a tree.
How to Grow American Beech From Seed
Gather some dried, ripe beechnuts from the tree in the fall, and plant each one in a container filled with potting mix. Cover the seeds with 1/2 inch of potting mix and place them in a sunny indoor location. Keep the potting mix moist but not wet until the seed sprouts, then continue growing in a bright location.
At the end of the first year, transplant the seedling into a larger pot and continue growing it until it reaches a height of 1 to 3 feet, at which time it is ready to plant in the landscape. You'll need patience, as this can take several years.
American beech is a very hardy species that requires no special cold protection. When the tree is young, you may want to protect the trunk of the tree with hardware cloth or a metal guard to shield the bark from rabbits and other gnawing animals. After a few years, this kind of winter protection will no longer be necessary.
Common Pests & Plant Diseases
Like the American elm tree (Ulmus americana) and the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata), the American beech tree has been under attack from a foreign invader and suffers from a serious disease: beech bark disease. Two things working together cause this disease: a non-native insect (the beech scale) and certain fungi (Nectria species). The beech scale insects pierce the bark (the bark is thin, making their task easier) to remove sap. These piercings give the fungi open access to the insides of the tree. The result is bark cankers. At worst, death can result from beech bark disease. At best, the tree's looks will be marred. Control of the disease is possible, but it is difficult and best left to professionals.
Understanding what causes beech bark disease should dissuade you from engaging in the time-honored practice of carving initials in the bark that will be visible for decades. The thinness of the bark is what has made this tree the preferred target of such carving: A knife easily pierces the bark, leading to scarring that never heals. Just as piercings from an insect can open the way to damaging fungi, human-made injury has the same effect.
How to Get American Beech to Bloom
American beech is a monoecious species, producing both male and female flowers on the same plant. They are not showy, so the only reason to be concerned about flowers is if you want the plant to produce nuts, which are the product of the female flowers. But it's possible that you'll never live to see a tree you plant produce nuts. That's because it can take 40 years or more before a beech tree is sufficiently mature to begin flowering and producing nuts.
If you have a mature tree that is already producing flowers and nuts, be aware that it's common for the yield to vary from year to year. Typically, there's a heavy flower/nut production every two or three years, with a much sparser yield in other years.
To encourage flower and nut production, simply keep the tree as healthy as possible, especially when it comes to providing adequate water. These trees don't like extended drought.
Common Problems With American Beech
Roots Are Disrupting the Lawn
American beech is notorious for developing shallow, exposed roots that can extend quite a distance. While deep soil preparation can encourage the tree to root itself downward rather than out, once a tree begins to exhibit an extensive exposed root system, there's little you can do about it. At this point, the best strategy might be to convert the area below the canopy from lawn grass to a shade-garden bed covered with thick mulch to hide the roots.
Canopy Is Too Low
Beech trees are known for having low limbs that can interfere with pedestrian movement and create such dense shade that lawn grass won't thrive beneath it. A beech tree's canopy can be raised by pruning away the lowest limbs, but this is best done on a young tree over a period of several years. With an older, mature tree, it can be damaging to cut away many large limbs all at once, so if it must be done, spread the pruning over several years.
Tree Suckers Constantly
One of the big drawbacks of the American beech tree is that it spreads by sending up suckering sprouts from its extensive root system. In native habitat, this can allow a single tree to colonize into an entire dense thicket of trees, but in a traditional landscape, this habit can be an annoyance. These suckers should be cut away as they appear to prevent them from diverting energy away from the main tree.
How can I use this tree in the landscape?
This massive, long-lived tree with the broad, oval-shaped canopy is normally planted as a shade tree, but it also has ornamental value as a specimen tree for large properties. However, it has a tendency toward shallow broad-reaching roots, so it should be planted well away from hardscape structures.
Does this tree have wildlife value?
Yes. Creatures such as squirrels, chipmunks, and many birds love to feed on the ripened nuts of this tree. In wilder regions, the nuts may even be popular with bears.
How can I tell the difference between an American beech and a European beech?
The clearest difference is that the American beech has leaves with serrated edges, while the European beech has smooth-edged leaves. On the unripened fruit, the spines on American beech are usually straight, while the spines on the fruit of European beech are often curly. Finally, the leaves on American beech are longer and narrower, while European beech has leaves that are more oval-shaped.
European beech is a slightly smaller tree, and as a landscape tree, it may be preferable to the American beech, which is somewhat sensitive to urban conditions and has a troublesome suckering habit.
Are the nuts edible for humans?
Yes, the nuts are edible, though not as desirable for humans as they are for animals. Full ripened nuts can be roasted and eaten whole, or they can be ground into flour and added to corn meal for baking.
How long does an American beech tree live?
It's quite common for an American beech in good health to live more than 150 years. There are some existing specimens believed to be more than 300 years old.
Does this tree have good fall color?
American beech turns a golden bronze color in fall. It is not especially showy on its own, but can provide a nice contrast with other, more colorful trees.