American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)|
The American beech
is easily recognized even in dense, complex forests by its thin, smooth, light gray bark. Unlike most other hardwood trees, the American beech retains this smooth bark throughout its "mature" years. The American beech can live for three hundred to four hundred years and can reach heights of eighty feet and diameters in excess of three feet. In the shaded conditions of a forest stand, the American beech forms a long, straight, massive trunk that rises up into a small, dense crown of foliage. In sunnier, more open sites, the American beech forms a short (although still massive!) trunk that diverges into a large number of horizontal branches to form a huge, widely spreading crown. The American beech is especially found in sites that have moist soils, especially along streams and creeks, in bottom lands, and in shaded, protected ravines. Any site, though, with adequate soil moisture will support the American beech. Its root system is shallow and widely spreading which adapts it well to wet conditions. It is able to sprout new seedlings from its roots and often dense thickets of these root-sprouted seedlings are found around older, undisturbed trees.
The leaves of the American beech are also quite distinctive. They are from two and a half to six inches long and two and a half inches wide, elliptical in shape with many parallel side veins and coarse, saw-toothed edges. The leaves are dull green above and lighter green below and turn yellow or brown in the autumn. They may remain attached to their trees through the winter. These leaves decompose relatively slowly and are, therefore, found in thick layers on the soil surface beneath the trees.
Flowers and Fruit
The American beech flowers in the early spring just as its leaves are unfolding. The male flowers are small and yellow and clustered together into ball-like structures. The female flowers are even smaller with reddish bordering scales and are found on the ends of the new twig growth. Pollinated flowers form an edible nut ("beech nut", "beech mast") which is eaten by many mammals (including squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, and bears) and birds. These nuts are produced in great abundance every two or three years.
The American beech grows extremely well in the shaded conditions of the forest floor. It is recognized as the most shade "tolerant" northern hardwood species. It readily forms pure stands but is often found in association with other hardwood species (especially sugar maple and yellow birch but also black cherry, white ash and northern red oak) and conifers (like white pine, hemlock and red spruce). Because of its thin bark and shallow root system, the American beech is very susceptible to damage from forest fires. Older trees are often damaged and weakened by fungal infestations and rot.
The smooth bark of the American beech presents a tempting surface for the carving of initials and names. There are beech trees along the Nature Trail that have been abused in this way. Carvings into the beech bark will persist for the life of the tree but besides marring the natural beauty of the tree may also serve as an entry way into the tree for fungi or wood damaging insects.