Hello fellow readers, One of the gems that jumped out from The Book of Hope we chatted about last week is Jane Goodall’s closest childhood friend Beech, a beech tree she asked her grandmother to pass on to her in a handwritten will. You see, I have a beloved Mr. Beech too, although I don’t climb mine as Jane used to do at her family home in England. Now she sits below him and enjoys a sandwich, she said. It occurs to me beech trees are not often planted as landscape trees, and I wonder why.
Beech trees help our wildlife.
Beech trees are hosts to 100 species of butterflies and moths. Their high protein seeds, protected by prickly three-winged beechnuts, are essential food for black bears, turkeys, rodents, raccoons, and deer, though the tree themselves are deer resistant.
They are one of the few trees that can thrive in the deep shade of the forest. Or serve as a specimen lawn tree where space allows.
American Beech (Fagus grandfolia) is native from New Brunswick to Ontario, Canada, and south to Florida and Texas and grows to 50-70 feet (sometimes 100 feet) with an equal spread. They prefer moist, well-drained acidic soil (pH 5-6.5) in Zones 4–9.
I adore waking and admiring Mr. Beech just beyond the bedroom window. Wintertime is a favorite time, watching how he holds onto dry and tawny brown leaves that rustle in the wind. It’s nature’s way to protect the buds until the new leaves emerge. His trunk has fissures now, but young native beech trees sport smooth silver-grey bark.
Did you know bark works much like our skin, keeping innards intact and protected? And it exfoliates, making room for new skin as we grow.
Some trees, like beech, shed their skin quickly while others, like pine, do so slowly, causing the outer layer of their skin, their bark, to grow thick and crack. But the inner layer of the bark is smooth, fitting the trunk’s width. The older the tree, the deeper the cracks. Sound familiar :^)?
Bark, like skin, wrinkles with age.
American Beech bark begins to wrinkle too, starting from the bottom up when it reaches middle age, say 150 or 200 years old, making a nifty spot to attract moss which offers an added protection barrier. They can live to 400 with a beefy three-foot-wide trunk. Mr. Beech’s trunk is about two feet wide with branching spanning almost the width of the house, shading it in the heat of the summer.
Much is said about beech trees being finicky to transplant, though my favorite nurseryman Ben Jansen of E.P. Jansen Nursery (Florida, New York) disagrees. Like most trees, planting them while dormant is best to lessen transplant shock.
What about Beech Bark Disease?
I came upon a University of Massachusetts fact sheet (2019) that says Beech Bark Disease “has killed millions of American beech trees throughout New England.” A scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) came from overseas on nursery stock. It combines with a native fungus to cause the disease. Ben said it’s not an issue in our neck of the woods.
While walking with Jolee, I took photos of the smooth beach bark on young trees along the road then visited Mr. Beech, somewhat hesitantly, not wishing to find disease symptoms. Happily, his bark has ridges filled with moss running horizontally all along the trunk, just as a healthy old tree should be.
Do we hesitate to plant glorious native trees due to the fear of disease? Or do we grow them in the right cultural environment and forgo chemical lawn treatments keeping faith that nature’s resilience will protect them. I thought so. Jane Goodall would be proud. Garden Dilemmas? AskMaryStone@gmail.com (and on your favorite Podcast App.)
About E.P. Jansen Nursery
University of Massachusetts Fact Sheet (2019) – Beech Bark Disease
There’s more to this story, including unique joys that Jane Goodall shared, sure to bring a smile in Episode 45 of the Podcast: