The American Beech

Last but not least in stunning fall yellows is the beech tree, perhaps my favorite tree of all. The maples have shed their leaves. Oaks are hanging on to drab leaves. Soon the forest will be owned by hemlock and white pine trees but now it’s all about the beech tree. This forest was aglow with shades of yellow as we trekked about 3 miles on beautiful trails.

White pines in the picture below grow through and tower above the slow-growing beech tree’s lemony fall canopy.

white-pine-and-beech

The leaves of beech trees are alternate with toothed margins and straight parallel veins on short stalks. The trunk in the background below is a white pine.

Beech leaves against white pine bark

The beech trunk is said to resemble an elephant’s leg with the smooth, thin, wrinkled light gray bark. What do you think?

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The leaves that fall and cover the ground are springy and odorless, thus the perfect filler for mattresses for early Americans and those in other countries.

“The leaves of the chestnut tree make very wholesome mattresses to lie on… [Beech leaves]… being gathered about their fall, and somewhat before they are much frost-bitten, afford the best and easiest mattresses in the world to lay under our quilts instead of straw; because, besides their tenderness and loose lying together, they continue sweet for seven or eight years long; before which time straw becomes musty and hard; they are thus used by divers persons of quality in Dauphine; and in Switzerland I have sometimes lain on them to my great refreshment…”
John Evelyn, Sylva: A discourse of forest-trees, 1670.

Beech Leaves

To see the massive old beech tree we left behind in Virginia, click HERE. Beneath the tree we recovered a wine bottle from the late 1700’s or early 1800’s and very large oyster shells discarded in a pit. It was fun to think the tree sheltered those folks at an early American oyster roast.

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow
to keep an appointment with a beech-tree…..”
– Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 1862

The Glorious American Beech

There are several members of the Fagus genus of beech trees, such are Japanese, Chinese, European or Mexican beech but the only one native to America is the Fagus grandifolia, the American beech. These are fairly common and widespread trees found throughout the eastern United States from Canada to the Florida panhandle.

Our stately old beech

We have one large beech, height about 75-feet, growing near the waterfront. The canopy is rounded and full and the branches are wide spread and sturdy.  It’s always been a favorite spot for children and grandchildren to explore or swing on a rope or shimmy up into the heart of the tree.The beech tree is deciduous and our old tree loses most of its leaves, leaving a thick litter beneath where nothing else grows. It’s said that the dried leaves from beech trees made choice mattress fillers for colonists and early settlers because there was a certain spring to the mattress and a pleasant aroma.

Young beech trees in the woods surrounding our home are easy to spot at a distance as the tan colored leaves remain on the trees during the harshest of winters.

In late spring, bright green leaves emerge that turn a darker shade of green by summer. The fall season brings a golden yellow to the foliage for us to enjoy.

Beech trees are very easy to identify by the smooth bark, oval toothed leaves with straight parallel veins and long sharply pointed buds. Some say the trunk of the tree resembles a leg of an elephant, a colorful description that delights the grandchildren.

We have no idea if our beech is really old or not but I’m sure it has seen a lot of history on this little stretch of land.  Gardening near the tree, we once dug up remnants of an oyster roast held long ago on the banks of this river, with a handblown wine bottle dating around 1800 and very large oyster shells discarded in a pit. Hmmmm…  Wouldn’t it be fun to think that this old tree might have provided a little shade for the participants of that meal?

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester