American Beech Tree Plant Profile

The Perfect Standout for Fall and Winter Landscapes

Closeup of beech tree leaves

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The American beech tree is a deciduous plant, belonging to the same family (Fagaceae) that also contains its European (Fagus sylvatica) and Asian (Fagus crenata) cousins. The European is the most popular version in the West, even in North America, due, in part, to its diverse and eye-popping cultivars. But enthusiasts of native plants in North America will want to grow the plant that they have marveled at many a time during their walks through the forest.

Botanical Name Fagus grandifolia
Common Name American beech tree
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 50 to 80 feet tall, with a similar width; slow grower
Sun Exposure Full sun to partial shade
Soil Type Medium moisture, rich, deeply-cultivated, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time April or May
Flower Color Yellowish-green 
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9
Native Area  Eastern North America

How to Grow American Beech Trees

It can be difficult to find a container-grown American beech tree at your local garden center. But you can buy a bare-root American beech online. Late winter to early spring is a great time to buy and transplant (the second-best time would be fall). Choose a planting spot with a deep, well-drained soil.

Like the America 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: the beech bark disease. Two things cause this disease, working together: 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. A better solution is to wait for the availability of disease-resistant cultivars.

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.

Light

American beech trees are not fussy about sunlight. They seem to grow equally well in full sun or partial shade.

Soil

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. Meanwhile, furnishing a deep soil may help discourage the shallow rooting so problematic for this tree. Shallow rooting can wreck nearby hardscape features.

Water

This plant has average water needs.

Fertilizer

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.

Features of and Uses for American Beech Trees

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.

The tree is monoecious, with the male parts coming in the form of catkins that appear in spring just after the new leaves and offer further visual interest.

The dark-green, elliptical leaves taper at both ends, have a toothed margin, and measure 2 to 5 inches long. The leaf size is greater than that on most types of beech trees, thus the species name (which is Latin for "large-leaved").

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. This fact can be a benefit if you do not want to have to worry about growing ground covers under your tree to suppress weeds. The density of the foliage and of the branching pattern also makes the tree a candidate for hedges.

American Beech Tree and Your Fall Foliage Design

But the best features of the American beech tree are its fall foliage and winter interest, although it is an attractive specimen year-round. 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. Lower that eye level even further with ground covers or perennials that change color; many types of ferns turn yellow in fall, such as the interrupted fern (Osmunda claytoniana).