Plants - Trees and Shrubs

The majestic and graceful beech tree

Trevor Cole
Photography by
Ernst Kucklich

Bring grandeur to your humble gardens with a beech tree.

“Among deciduous trees there is nothing quite as majestic or as graceful as the beech.” So wrote Donald Wyman, then horticulturist at the Arnold Arboretum near Boston and president of the American Horticultural Society, in his 1951 book Trees for American Gardens. Things haven't changed since then; beeches are still spectacular landscape trees that leave a lasting visual impression.

Of the 10 species of beech worldwide, only two are commonly cultivated by and available from Canadian nurseries. The American beech (Fagus grandifolia, Zone 4) is native from Nova Scotia to Ontario and south to Florida's panhandle. It's a good tree for a large garden but it creates dense shade and has shallow roots, so cultivating grass beneath its branches can be difficult. These trees need deep, well-drained, acidic soil; they will not thrive on wet or compacted soil. Plant container-grown, or balled and burlap-wrapped specimens in spring. At maturity, American beech, for which there are no named forms, can grow to 20 metres, with a crown almost as wide. On country properties, plant one for your grandchildren-it's slow-growing and the kids will enjoy the edible nuts.

The queen of the beech family is the imposing European beech (Fagus sylvatica), which is much less demanding and able to grow in both slightly acidic and alkaline soils. Smaller than the Ameri-can beech, it reaches a height of about 18 metres. Although most varieties are also hardy to Zone 4, their main drawback is a high sensitivity to salt. As such, the European beech is not a good choice for siting near the coast or close to roads that are salted in winter. But it's fairly tolerant of urban pollution, making some of the smaller varieties, such as ‘Dawyck', excellent options for city planting.

In spring, the unfolding foliage of European beech is a glossy, new-grass green that changes to a dark green in summer, then to a russet brown in late fall. The foliage remains on the trees over winter until pushed off by the new leaves, giving winter interest and a contrast to the dull green of most coniferous plants.

The species is fairly easy to grow from seed. Sown outside when first ripe and picked in early fall, it should germinate the following spring. Indoors, mix the seed with an equal quantity of just-moist peat moss, enclose in a plastic bag and store in the refrigerator at 5°C or lower for 60 to 90 days to improve the germination rate. The problem, though, is finding good seed.

Only two of the many forms of F. sylvatica can be grown from seed, and even then the seedlings will differ from the parent plants. Seeds from purpurea (a collective name for the many purple-coloured copper beeches) produce plants with purple foliage, but the colour may not be as dark as the parents'; the shape will also likely differ. Named forms of copper beech are propagated by grafting.

Their smooth, grey bark makes beech one of the easiest trees to identify. Even when mature, the bark doesn't become furrowed like that of most trees. Unfortunately, the smoothness tempts people to carve their initials, often in pairs within a heart; a defacement that frequently lasts longer than the relationship.

A tree in Washington County, Tennessee, bore the inscription “D. Boone Cilled A Bar on Tree in Year 1760.” This was still legible in 1880, and the scars were still visible when the tree eventually fell in 1916, at an estimated age of 365 years.

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