Fagus grandifolia – American Beech

Beech tree in Trillium Woods

Elegant, gracefully muscular, glowing in winter forests amongst the dark hemlocks, pines, and maples it associates with, American Beech is a majestic, slow growing, and long-lived tree. It’s easily identified by its smooth blue-grey bark and sharply pointed buds.  Tall and straight, the long grey bole extends upward from an elephant-like foot, flaring out into thick branches that end in many fine twigs. The leaves are alternate, simple, elliptic, coarsely toothed, and dark green. In the fall it produces beechnuts, which are eaten by bear, deer, and other mammals.

 

Mature Beech in Chapman Mills West.

On young Beech the leaves are retained in winter, fading from gold to pinkish tan to translucent flax by spring, sometimes lending a rosy tinge to snowy forest light. Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and Ironwood (Ostrya virginiana) also retain their leaves in winter, but are easily distinguished from Beech by their leaves, bark, and buds.

Beech is usually found with Hemlock, Sugar Maple, and White Pine in mesic climax forests where it thrives in deep, rich soil.  However, it can also grow in thin, acidic terrain like the Carp Hills and Gatineau Park, but is scattered, smaller, and less vigorous.  Beech Drops (Epifagus americana), a parasitic plant that grows on Beech tree roots, can often be found on the forest floor around Beech trees in undisturbed woods.

Neonectria faginata

American Beech trees in North America are threatened by Beech Bark Disease, which has recently reached Eastern Ontario. The disease is a two part process. First the tree is attacked by a non-native scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga) introduced from Europe in the late 1800’s. The insect opens small fissures in the bark that allow the Neonectria faginata fungus to enter, forming reddish-brown cankers that girdle the tree, usually killing it in three to five years. The search is on for resistant trees, which can be documented in an iNaturalist project: Beech Bark Disease Resistance.

Beech trees are still widespread in forests around Ottawa, but most are showing signs of infection.  For old growth trees, visit Gillies Grove in Arnprior and Shaw Woods near Cobden. In Ottawa, large Beech can be found at Bell Centennial Forest and Trillium Woods.

Here are selected photographs with location coordinates in iNaturalist:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/10121170 – Fruiting Neonectria faginata.
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/13971602 – Scale insect (Cryptococcus fagisuga).
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/3393839 – Series of photos showing trunk, branching habit, and spring buds.

 

Golden yellow Beech leaves in autumn fade to flax by spring
The foot of a Beech trunk often resembles that of an elephant
Crown of a mature Beech tree in Bell Centennial Forest