The American beech is a deciduous tree in the Fagus genus, which also includes the European beech (Fagus sylvatia). American beech (F. grandifolia) is a tree that appeals to native plant enthusiasts, though in many ways is inferior to the much more popular European species.
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 in 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.
|Botanical Name||Fagus grandifolia|
|Common Name||American beech tree|
|Plant Type||Deciduous tree|
|Mature Size||50-80 feet tall, similar width|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to part shade|
|Soil Type||Medium moisture, rich, deeply-cultivated, well-drained|
|Soil pH||5.0–6.5 (acidic)|
|Bloom Time||April to May|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Eastern North America|
American Beech Care
It can be difficult to find a container-grown American beech tree at your local garden center. 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.
American beech tree's branching pattern, with its impressive density and horizontal orientation, is one of its great features. It is also a low-branching tree. The result of these traits is that the tree casts such dense shade that little will grow under it.
One of the best features of the American beech tree is its fall foliage and winter interest. In the second half of autumn, the leaves turn golden-bronze. They hang on for much of the winter after turning tan. The smooth, silvery-gray bark and branching pattern also offer interest in winter.
For the ultimate landscape design in fall, grow plants that change color at different times and that grow to different heights. Red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum) are trees that change color early, as opposed to oak (Quercus spp.) and beech. Mix in some colorful autumn shrubs to lower the viewer's eye level. Continue with ground covers or perennials that change color; many types of ferns turn yellow in fall, such as the interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana).
American beech trees are not fussy about sunlight. They seem to grow equally well in full sun or part 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.
A balanced fertilizer is acceptable. In early spring, apply 1 pound of the fertilizer per 100 square feet. Spread it over the ground directly under the tree's canopy and water it in.
Is American Beech Toxic?
Though ripe nuts are deliciously edible, the unripe nuts of this tree 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.
Symptoms of Poisoning
Eating large quantities of unripe nuts can cause various forms of stomach upset, including vomiting and diarrhea. This most often occurs in dogs and occasionally grazing animals who feed on the nuts. The illness is usually self-correcting in a short time, and treatment is rarely needed.
American vs. European 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.
Pruning American Beech
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.
To propagate from stem cuttings: 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 to start 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, Then, remove the plastic bag and continue to grow the cutting 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.
To propagate from seeds: 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.
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 your American beech tree 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, so can human-made piercings.