If winter seems utterly bleak, you probably don’t have many beech trees around.
One of Grumpy’s two favorite native trees (white oak is the other), American beech (Fagus grandifolia) lights up the landscape like no other these days. That’s why I just planted a pair of them in my small woods out back.
In nature, American beech is a grand tree, growing 90 feet tall and 60 feet wide after many years and developing a massive trunk. It sports smooth, silvery-gray bark into which intellectually challenged individuals carve their names and provide proof of their idiocy for generations to come. Fortunately, trees out of reach to the trailer park crowd usually remain unscathed. The way their bark catches the afternoon light, especially in winter, is a source of great pleasure to me.
In truth, though, the bark plays second fiddle to the beech’s leaves at this time of year. Unlike most deciduous trees, American beech retains its leaves almost all winter. They start out a handsome, deep green in summer. In fall, they turn yellow with green veins before changing to caramel. Winter sees yet another phase. Freezing weather bleaches them parchment tan. A grove of beeches in winter woods is a lovely sight indeed.
As beautiful and as stately as American beech is, it’s not the easiest tree to place into your landscape. Few ornamental plants, except spring bulbs, will grow beneath it due to its deep shade and thick network of surface roots. Grass is impossible. And, of course, the tree gets big, but this takes a long time as it grows rather slowly.
Unless you live on an estate, the best use for this tree in the home garden is in a natural area like the woods. It likes sun or light shade and doesn’t mind starting out as an understory tree. Give it moist, acid, well-drained soil that contains lots of organic matter for the best growth. Beech nuts feed all sorts of wildlife from loud-mouth blue jays to annoying squirrels.
Beech trees are generally hard to find at garden centers, but they’re certainly worth the search. You can order small ones online like I did from woodlanders.net.
Go ahead – plant some. You may think this world has enough beeches as it is, but I assure you it does not.
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