Beech and Beechnut Trees for Fall Foliage

From Edible Beechnuts to Tricolor's Variegated Foliage

american beech trees in fall
Katja Schulz/ Flickr/ CC BY 2.0

Tricolor beech trees display striking foliage not only in fall but in spring and summer, as well. But the varieties that produce nuts are much more well known. Once you've seen their fall foliage, you won't soon forget it. While enjoying their autumn leaves, try snacking on the nuts.

Although beech trees are listed as trees for sunny areas, a punishing sun can be difficult for young beeches that have yet to become established. For this reason, it may be desirable to provide some light shading for young transplants. Plant beech trees in deep, rich, moist soil.

American Beech Trees (Beechnut Trees)

American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) are natives of eastern North America and have golden-bronze fall foliage. The leaves persist in winter after turning a rather pleasing tan color. But the attraction goes beyond their fall foliage and winter interest. The trademark of American beeches is their smooth, silvery-gray bark that makes them ideal targets for carving initials in the woods for posterity.

The edible fruit, beechnuts, ripen in fall and has an oily-sweet flavor. Deer, squirrels, and blue jays also prize beechnuts.

With a height of 50 to 80 feet and a width of 40 to 80 feet, this is not a plant to grow in a small space. But if you have sufficient acreage and live in zones 3–9, American beech trees are an impressive addition to a landscape. Their branches begin low on the trunk and shoot out horizontally, straight as an arrow.

Another challenge in growing them, however, is soil compaction. This tree would not be a good choice in areas with heavy foot traffic. But if you have a large property and would like to dedicate a portion of it to woods, American beeches would be suitable for such an area.

Yet another problem is that the beautiful bark of American beech trees is sometimes marred by beech bark disease. Beech bark disease results from the interaction of a fungus and an insect.

If, in spite of all these difficulties, you still choose to grow American beech trees, plant them in sun to light shade in rich, well-drained soil with a pH that is acidic to neutral. A slow grower, American beech trees can live hundreds of years.

European Beech Trees

The low-lying limbs of European beech trees have a horizontal branching pattern and are wildlife-friendly, affording ample screening for skittish creatures. These limbs also make a good visual impact in winter, meaning European (also called "common") beech trees are a useful element in composing a landscape with four-season interest.

The fall foliage of the common European variety is similar to that of their American counterparts, but in some other respects, the two plants do differ.

European beeches (Fagus sylvatica) are native to western Asia in addition to Europe and the British Isles. In terms of cultivation requirements, there are differences between these well-traveled fall foliage trees and their American cousins:

  • European beeches can withstand more foot-traffic than American beeches, making them better candidates for busy yards.
  • They prefer a more alkaline soil (according to the Royal Horticultural Society).
  • Zones 4–7 are the most suitable growing areas.
  • They are somewhat smaller specimens, but they are still too large for a tiny front lawn.
  • They have a fibrous root system, making them easier to transplant than American beech trees.

European beeches respond well to heavy pruning. Combined with the long-lasting quality of their leaves, they are popular as hedge plants. In fact, European beeches have also been used as bonsai specimens.

An alternative to the common variety is the purple-leafed cultivar (Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea').

Tricolor Beech Trees

"Tricolor" beech trees (Fagus sylvatica 'Roseomarginata' or Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea Tricolor') bear exquisite variegated foliage throughout the growing season. This is a smaller tree than the two beeches discussed above (about 30' x 30'), making it more appropriate as a lawn specimen. Hardy to zone 4, Tricolor beeches can display a number of color patterns. Sometimes you'll see purple leaves bordered by rose and light pink. Other times, green and white centers are encased in a rosy border. Plant this tree in a shadier spot than you would either American or European beeches.