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.
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 Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), and White Pine (Pinus strobus) in 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.
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.