Friday, January 3, 2014

American Beech

"I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines."
- Henry David Thoreau

A grand old American beech competes for a photographer's attention with nearby sycamores
on the grounds of the N.C. Wyeth home and studio. What a painting this would make!
Chadds Ford, PA
One of my favorite trees, and one that puts on a beautiful show in every season, especially winter, is the American Beech, Fagus grandifloria. Hiking with children, the beech should be one of the first they can easily identify in any season. Well-kept trails make hiking through a beech forest an easy undertaking in many Maryland State Parks, and there are beautiful stands to be seen in community parks and greenways throughout the region. Walking through a pure stand at sunset can be nearly magical.

Framed by sweetgum (Liquidamber styraciflua) young American beech form a root sprout
stand in the rich soils of this lowland forest in Perryville, Cecil County, MD
The American beech is considered one of the dominant Eastern forest trees, that often shares climax status with maples, oaks, and gum wherever soils are rich. Grand old trees will buttress out from their base with dozens of large shallow roots. Root systems will spread underground as far as the tree is tall, creating a network of enmeshed roots with other trees. As enmeshed roots from several trees can form biological bonds that transfer nutrients, water, and sugars. Many beech will root-sprout and send up root suckers by the dozens. A good 'beech-gap' of root-sprouted young trees is the primary means of reproduction in most stands. These young trees usually hold tight to their leaves throughout the winter, an easy marker for identifying this species. Look for the parent tree in the center of the 'gap.'

A beautiful array of shallow roots spread powerfully
through the moist, rich soil of a lowland forest.
Chadds Ford, PA
Donald Peattie, author of the classic A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1948) showers the American beech with praise, claiming it as one of the grandest of all our forest trees. He describes the bark as 'tight fitting' clear gray and a tree of historic importance to the colonists and settlers who found it welcoming and familiar as it is also found in Europe (Fagus sylvatica). To read his tribute to the beech is to understand how beloved this species was, and I hope will continue to be.

A Mid-Atlantic naturalist should have
this classic natural history book on
their library shelf!
What gives this tree such beauty is also its weakness. The thin bark of the beech makes it susceptible to deep cold, fire, and disease. Most obvious in a well-travelled beech woods, the quality of  beech bark  seems to attract all manner of human inscribers, declaring their love or expounding on topics of the day.  One old stand of beech in the Perryville Community Park in Cecil County MD contains dozens of massive beech trees carved round and round, from the ground level to as high as a man can reach with wild rantings of a  combat veteran who was surely a resident of the nearby veteran's hospital. This resident appears to have been a Korean War soldier and found the thin barked beech worthy of extensive time carving long missives against the war. It is heartbreaking to come across these trees and I when I visit this area, I always stop to say a prayer for this broken soul. I wonder who he was, where he fought, what he saw, and where he called home.

A reminder to Seize the Day, along the Land of Promise Trail in
Susquehanna State Park, Havre de Grace, MD
Tom Wessels, one of my professors in grad school a few years ago, describes in his book Reading The Forested Landscape (1997) how the thin-barked beech has become victim to not only carving and defacing, but to an introduced invasive pest that arrived with loads of imported beech from Europe in the 1890s. "What?! Imported wood?" you say.

By the end of the Civil War, much of the Eastern states had been deforested, which is hard to believe now as forests cover a great portion of our region. Wood was regularly imported and with it came all manner of insect and fungal pests. Defenseless against bark-piercing insects, the American beech fell victim to an introduced scale insect and an opportunistic fungus, Nectria. The insect is the carrier of the fungus, and whether spread by the sharp incisors of the bug or by the blade of a pocket knife, the fungus can quickly infect the tree and cause massive damage to the cambium layer. Within months the bark of the infected beech will blacken and begin to blister and crack. If the infection should girdle the tree, it will soon die. The disease continues to spread throughout our region.

A good video from Cornell Cooperative Extension explains the disease:

A good reason to teach our children never to carve into a tree. Wounds in bark, especially in thin-skinned trees like beech, can bring a world of trouble.

With my back to the parent tree, a 'beech gap' of root-sucker sprouts
surrounds me with golden winter-held leaves.
Perryville Community Park, Cecil County, MD

I have many found memories of gathering beechnuts with my Great Uncle Mac and Aunt Virginia who would happily collect copious amounts of beechnuts in their fall foraging, hours on end. Shelled and boiled or roasted, they were delicious, and Mac would grind a nice coffee with the aromatic nuts. The deep distinct smell of beechnut coffee carried a scent of rich woodlands on those cold, crisp collecting days. I loved how the way the prickly shells stuck to my little red gloves.
A common forest floor companion in the beech woods is trailing arbutus.
Look carefully to spot the prickly beech nut lying in and around other tree seeds.
Susquehanna State Park, Havre de Grace, MD

The beechnut can be found in profusion in the autumn months when the tree's toothed simple leaves turn brilliant yellow. These nuts are critical food for forest animals, and are a preferred forage crop for bears, deer, turkey, and  small mammals who, like blue jays and woodpeckers, will cache them in secret niches and holes. The nuts were preferred forage for the masses of passenger pigeons that darkened our skies on autumn migrations. Limbs of the great trees would crash to the ground with the weight of the birds in their night roosts. What a thrill that must have been to early naturalists to see these gatherings and flights, though the passenger pigeon is gone now because of market hunting and greed. I wonder what effect the loss of the bird had on the tree?

John James Audubon

I dismounted, seated myself on an eminence, and began to mark with my pencil, making a dot for every flock that passed. In a short time, finding the task which I had undertaken impracticable as the birds poured in in countless multitudes, I rose, and counting the dots then put down, found that 163 had been made in twenty-one minutes. I traveled on, and still met more the farther I proceeded. The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse; the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose... Before sunset I reached Louisville, distance from Hardensburgh fifty-five miles. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession.
- John James Audubon,  

Little, Elbert L. (1980) The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.  (This is an old field guide that I stuff into my pack when hiking through forests. Though there are better field guides with different, maybe better,  identification systems, this old book has served me very well!)

Peattie, Donald (1991) A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. (Too big and heavy to take along! Leave this for evening reading at home.)

Wessels, Tom (2005) Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England. Countryman Press.  (Though focused on northern woodlands, this book suits our region well as many of the events and species discussed are shared with much of the Mid-Atlantic.)

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