Saturday, December 28, 2019

Appreciating the American Beech

american beech by adelaide tyrolI’ve always found slender, sharp, yellow-ochre beech leaves alluring, and it’s endearing how they cling onto saplings late into the fall. However, Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, tends to get a lot of flak from foresters.

The trees are plagued with beech bark disease, which ruins any timber value, and they can dominate the understory, shutting out sugar maple and prized yellow birch. Quick to arrive after most logging jobs, they sprout and sucker their way into dominance.

Beech don’t have poor relations with foresters everywhere. Across the pond, European beech is still valued, which makes sense in a continent that has largely depleted its forests. Currently, it’s heavily used across Germany and Northern Italy and thought of as a good deal for the timber industry. It’s affordable, largely healthy (though beech bark disease is there), and in high abundance, with its range spanning central and western Europe.

Beech wood has traditionally been a low-value wood in the US. The conventional thinking is that red oak and sugar maple and yellow birch make high-end furniture, and beech (when it’s not riddled with lesions and full of rot) makes good firewood. But if we value trees for more than lumber, the perspective changes. As settlers moved west for greater opportunities, beech became a symbol of fertile soil, and pioneers across Ohio and Indiana set up farms alongside the range of beech. “A beech is, in almost any landscape where it appears, the finest tree to be seen” writes naturalist Donald Culross Peattie in the book A Natural History of North American Trees.

Even with beech bark disease, beech continues to have high value for wildlife in the Northeast, especially in the far north where it is the leading mast-producing tree. A whole suite of species – from fisher to grouse to deer mouse – depend on the nuts. In Maine, beechnut production has been correlated with the reproductive patterns of female black bears. Bears feast on beech nuts, often called “bear superfood,” as the nuts are high in fat content and have double the protein of acorns. You can see where a bear has been nut-hunting by looking for scratches on the bark, broken lower limbs, or a scramble of branches that resemble nests in the upper limbs.

Beech is a highly shade-tolerant species, and this may play to its favor as forest conditions change. However, beech bark disease will continue to stress the species. The Climate Change Tree Atlas, alongside vulnerability assessments, indicate mixed model results for beech. As the climate changes, it’s likely a good idea to retain and encourage healthy beech for the sake of wildlife. The definition of northern hardwood forests includes beech in the species list, after all.

“Let other trees do the work of the world,” comments Peattie after he acknowledges the commercial limitations of the beech. I have to agree. Even as diseased and dominating as beech can be, it’s hard for me to imagine a hardwood forest without it – without the experience of walking through the woods and spotting a sparse collection of silvery, muscled beech illuminated amongst the otherwise scrappy bark of birches and maples.

Olivia Box is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the University of Vermont, studying forests threatened by climate change and invasive pests. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation.

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6 Responses

  1. Jim Fox says:

    I’ve noticed beechnut mast this year like I haven’t seen in 30 yrs.

  2. Curt Austin says:

    I have to admit that I’ve been a beech-hater. I think bush-whacking got its name from those thin, iron-stiff, far-reaching beech branches. It’s their habit to branch horizontally – release one and the other whips you in the face – hard. The back roads and trails I maintain on my property are invaded by these branches from afar; I’ve learned to walk all the way to the trunk to cut them back.

    But it seems I’ve been insensitive to small furry creatures.

  3. Forester says:

    Great article and point of view. I manage private timber through the eastern Adirondacks and my beech strategy varies from property to property. Often when beech is minimal, I may not mark any to be cut, as it will certainly sprout and spread. If I leave it alone perhaps it will not spread as quick and be retained for its wildlife value. I have been questioned by loggers who are accustomed to cutting all beech as to why I do not cut it, and I refer to the above reasons, plus the little financial benefit to the landowner. Often I find straight, clear beech, which may be resistant or tolerant of beech bark disease which makes me hopeful for the species. Other properties are so riddled with beech that something needs to be done to tip the scales in favor of other species. I also prefer to leave beech trees where bear claw marks are evident as I would assume that these specific trees may be prolific seeders and beneficial to bears, turkeys, etc.

  4. Boreas says:

    Excellent article! More interesting insights into beech and other forests can be found in “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben – a Forester in Germany. Interesting, easy reading for anyone who ventures into the forest.

  5. Walker says:

    The quote, “A beech is, in almost any landscape where it appears, the finest tree to be seen”, reminded me of hikes as a kid, encountering a grove of 16″ – 18” diameter beech whose towering smooth gray trunks created an awesome cathedral effect in the forest. It is truly a shame that beech bark disease has reduced these once magnificent trees to the struggling saplings we see today. But, as Forester noted, occasionally you come across a large tree without the tell-tale disease pock-marks, so perhaps there’s hope a disease resistant beech population will emerge eventually.

  6. Glenn Pearsall Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Do hope beech blight resistant trees survive and thrive. Great source of food for wildlife as article points out. Even diseased trees can provide deep burrows in their trunks for wildlife seeking respite from the cold or predators. If you have to cut down an old decaying beech tree remember it is a great firewood with high BTUs to match the best other hardwoods.

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