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American Beech

A deciduous tree from the Beech Family (Fagaceae).

Zone: 4-9
Growth Rate: Slow
Mature Spread: 70'
Mature Height: 80'
Shape: Short trunk, rounded to spreading
Sunlight: Part to full sun
Soil Type: Adaptable but prefers rich soils that are well-drained, constant moisture

American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), easily recognized from a distance by its smooth, steel-gray bark and tapering surface roots at the base of its trunk, is present throughout all of Ohio. This tree is a favorite of children and teenagers who love to carve their initials onto its large smooth trunks. Many beech trees are partially hollow and provide excellent den sites for various wildlife, including squirrels, raccoons, and opossums. Its small, triangular nuts are relished by both mammals and birds in autumn.

A native of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada, the slow-growing American Beech reaches 80 feet tall and 70 feet wide when found in the open, with a short trunk and a rounded to spreading shape. It is a climax tree in mature forests, along with Sugar Maple, Oaks, Hickories, and sometimes Canadian Hemlock. As a member of the Beech Family, American Beech has a similar-looking cousin in European Beech, and is related to the Oaks and Chestnuts.

Planting Requirements

American Beech is adaptable to organic or clay soils, of alkaline to acidic pH, and of very moist to dry conditions. However, it prefers rich soils that are well-drained with constant moisture, and is often found naturally on lower slopes that drain into streams. It is very shade tolerant (especially when young), but achieves its best growth in partial sun to full sun, although still with a slow growth rate. It is found in zones 4 to 9.

Potential Problems

American Beech is usually disease and pest-free, but its tendency to have hollow trunks often leads to massive limbs being ripped out by strong winds. In urban areas, its shallow root system and dense shade make turfgrass establishment a real challenge, especially under the canopy of large, mature trees. In addition, it is sparsely branched when young, giving it a thin appearance until it reaches about four inches in trunk diameter.

Beech bark disease (BBD) has been killing American beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees in the eastern United States since the 1930s. The disease is actually an interaction between the beech scale (a non-native insect) and either one of two Nectria fungi.

Identifying Features

Leaf
Leaves of American Beech are alternate with coarse serrations on their slightly undulating margins. In the spring, they emerge as silvery-green, but quickly change to medium green then dark green (left).

Fall color ranges from yellow-green to a rich golden-brown (right), and some of the leaves do not abscise until the following spring. On old trees, the interior portions of the lower branches retain the beige-colored dead leaves, while young trees may have virtually their entire canopy clothed in dead foliage (below, upper left).

Flower
American Beech has separate male and female flowers, both of which occur on the same tree in early spring (thus making this species monoecious). Both types of flowers open with the emerging foliage, and some of the female flowers later become the fruits.

Fruit
Fruits of American Beech are composed of an outer prickly husk that splits open in late summer and early autumn to reveal one or two triangular, edible nuts. This "beech mast", as it is also known, is a favorite of birds and mammals.

Bud
This tree is also easily identified in winter by its long, narrow, pointed buds, which occur at every zig and zag of the outer twigs.

Bark
The bark of American Beech is its trademark, being steel gray in color and very smooth and thin, even on old trees . It is frequently vandalized by people who like to carve their initials on the trunk, since the smooth bark will not obscure the graffiti, even decades after the carving. The trunk flares more at its base than most other trees, and transitions to the shallow root system.