Trees of the Adirondacks:
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a large, deciduous tree that grows in northern hardwood forests in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Sugar Maples and American Beech trees are the two dominant trees of the northern hardwood forest, often found growing together. American Beech is less demanding than Sugar Maple and can also be found on poorer sites where Sugar Maples will not grow.
American Beech is the only native species of beech which grows in North America. The only other beech which occurs in the US is the nonnative European Beech, which was introduced from Europe and is a popular landscaping tree. The American Beech is also known as Carolina Beech, Gray Beech, Red Beech, Ridge Beech, Beechnut Tree, and White Beech.
American Beech trees in the Adirondack Mountains have been severely affected by beech bark disease. This disease is caused by a combination of insects and fungi. It is initiated when the beech scale (a scale insect) attacks the bark and makes it susceptible to bark canker fungi of the genus Nectria, which blisters the bark and weakens the tree.
- The insect component of the disease was introduced from Europe around 1890 in Nova Scotia.
- The disease had spread to the central Adirondacks by the mid-sixties. The disease attacked larger trees first. By 1980, 80 percent of the trees larger than 16 inches in diameter had been infected. As those trees died, smaller trees began to be affected. By 2000, 90 percent of the beech trees six inches in diameter or larger had been infected. Mortality is particularly high in some southern and western areas of the Adirondack Mountain region.
Identification of the American Beech
The American Beech normally grows from 50 to 70 feet tall, with a rounded crown. This tree is a relatively long-lived species. Trees older than 366 years have been found in Pennsylvania. In the Adirondacks, trees 150 to 200 years old can be found.
The tree is often surrounded by suckers. The branches sprout in alternate fashion. The leaf arrangement is also alternate. That is, only one leaf occurs at a node. The leaves alternate, in contrast to the opposite arrangement of plants like the Sugar Maple, whose leaves appear opposite one another on the twig.
American Beech leaves are elliptical. They have pointed tips and many straight, parallel veins and coarse teeth. The leaves are green during the summer. They turn golden yellow or lustrous brown, then pale brown in autumn. American Beech leaves remain on the tree well into winter, with some persisting into early spring, so if you are in the woods in winter and see a tree with brown leaves still hanging on to the tree, it probably is an American Beech.
The distinctive winter buds of beech trees are up to ¾" long and narrowly ellipsoid in shape. They resemble little speers.
American Beech trees flower during the spring, at a time when the leaves are about one-third grown. The bloom period lasts about one week; the inconspicuous flowers are cross-pollinated by the wind. The male flowers are yellowish-green male flowers and hang in clusters on long stems.
The fruit of the American Beech is a four-part husk with hooked prickles, opening at maturity to reveal two or three small, triangular nuts. They ripen between September and November. Beech trees produce large crops of fruits every two to eight years. This tree begins to produce a significant amount of seeds when it reaches about 40 years of age.
The bark of both trunk and larger branches is smooth and light gray, somewhat mottled. The bark of twigs is green at first, becoming mottled gray to brownish at maturity. The bark of American Beech infected with beech bark disease have large, erupting blisters and cracks caused by the fungi that invade the tree after beech scale has made punctures in the bark.
Keys to identifying the American Beech and differentiating it from other deciduous trees and large shrubs include its leaves, bark, growth habit, and habitat.
- The leaves of the American Beech are similar in shape to those of the Paper Birch and Yellow Birch; and the leaves of all three species are toothed. However, leaves of birch trees are double toothed, meaning that the teeth are of different sizes, with small teeth along the contours of larger teeth. American Beech leaves, by contrast, are single-toothed, with teeth of the same size. Moreover, the bark of the American Beech is very different from that of the peeling bark of the Paper Birch and Yellow Birch.
- The bark of American Beech trees and those of the Red Maple and young Sugar Maple trees are similar, but the shape of American Beech leaves contrast sharply with the lobed leaves of the Red Maple, Sugar Maple, and other maples. Moreover, maple leaves are opposite, with two leaves attached on either side of a node. By contrast, the leaf arrangement of American Beech trees is alternate, with only one leaf occurring at every node.
- In contrast to maple and birch trees, American Beech trees generally retain their leaves throughout the winter, making this tree very easy to identify in the snowy woods.
- American Beech leaves are similar in shape to those of the Hobblebush, but Hobblebush leaves have much finer teeth; and the growth pattern is very different. The Hobblebush is a shrub and rarely exceeds 10 feet in height.
Uses of the American Beech
The quality of wood from American Beech trees is only fair, but it has been used for cheap furniture, tool handles, veneer, shoe lasts, flooring, containers, veneer, railroad ties, baskets, pulp, wooden-ware, and fuel. The wood was reportedly also used as bentwood for furniture. The leaves and bark can be used to make dyes.
The tree also has a number of edible uses. Young leaves can be used raw or cooked as a potherb. Beechnuts can be roasted and eaten or used a coffee substitute. The raw seed should not be eaten in large quantities. However, the seed can be dried and ground into a powder, then used with cereal flours in making bread and cakes. The inner bark can be dried, ground into a powder, and then used as a thickening in soups or mixed with cereals when making bread. Early settlers gathered beech nuts to extract the oil, which is similar to olive oil and was used as both food and lamp oil.
American Beech was used by various native American tribes to treat a variety of ailments, including pulmonary troubles, burns, scalds, sores, and poison ivy. Many native American tribes also used the nuts for food. The Iroquois, for instance, crushed and boiled fresh nut meats, using the liquid as a drink; they also used the crushed nuts in a mixture with cornmeal and beans to make bread.
Wildlife Value of the American Beech
The American Beech has high wildlife value. This tree is the caterpillar host for the Early Hairstreak butterfly. American Beech is not a major browse. White-tailed Deer sometimes use it, but it does not form a key part of their diet. They will consume it only when more palatable browse is unavailable.
The significance of American Beech for wildlife stems from its production of beechnuts, which are among the most important of wildlife foods. Consumers of beechnuts include Raccoons, White-tailed Deer, Porcupines, American Martens, and Red Foxes. Beechnuts are also consumed by Black Bears, who load up on calories for winter hibernation. Beechnuts are important for Black Bear reproduction, because females need the high protein content this food source offers in their fall diet.
Beechnuts are a vital food source for squirrels and chipmunks. A poor mast year will visibly thin their population.
- Eastern Chipmunks prefer beechnuts. They are able to stuff their two internal cheek pouches with as many as 32 of the husked nuts at one time. They take the nuts to underground caches. By the end of the fall, a cache may contain 5000-6000 nuts. When the beechnut crop is poor, chipmunks will ascend to the canopy of American Beech trees. Although they can't get there directly, because beech bark is too smooth, they use neighboring maple trees to get to the canopy, where they nip off the beechnut clusters and retrieve them on the ground a few minutes later.
- Red Squirrels, who are much better climbers, don't wait for the beechnuts to drop; they go up into the canopy to sever them. They bury large and small caches of the nuts or store them in burrows, brush piles, or stone walls.
The American Beech also provides food and nesting sites for a variety of birds. It was the tree most associated with the extinct Passenger Pigeon, which fed on its nuts and roosted in its branches.
- The buds and blossoms of American Beech trees are an important part of the early spring diet of White-throated Sparrows.
- The species is a preferred foraging site for Hairy Woodpeckers, White-throated Sparrows, and Scarlett Tanagers.
- American Beech are used as a nest site by Cooper's Hawks, Northern Goshawks, and American Redstarts.
- American Beech trees provide nest cavities for cavity nesters, like the Wood Duck.
- Beechnuts are said to be an important food source for Blue Jays, Red-headed Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Wild Turkeys, and Ruffed Grouse.
In addition, the American Beech is a common tree species in the breeding habitat of a variety of birds, including :
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Northern Saw-whet Owl
Black-throated Green Warbler
The impact of beech bark disease on Adirondack wildlife is still being studied. While relatively little research has been done to determine the impacts of beech bark disease on beechnut production, it appears that beechnut production drops significantly in more advanced stages of the disease, only after the tree has lost a quarter of its crown. The decline in seed production has major implications for Adirondack wildlife due to the dependence of some species on the availability of beechnuts. This is particularly true for Black Bears, as well as for Eastern Chipmunks and other small mammals whose overwinter survival depends on the availability of the nuts.
Distribution of the American Beech
American Beech is found in the eastern part of the US. Its native range covers an area from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia west to Maine, southern Quebec, southern Ontario, northern Michigan, and eastern Wisconsin; then south to southern Illinois, southeastern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas; east to northern Florida and northeast to southeastern South Carolina.
American Beech trees are present in most counties in New York state, from sea level in coastal Long Island northward. This species can be found in all counties in the Adirondack Park Blue Line.
Habitat of the American Beech
American Beech, like Sugar Maple, prefer well-drained sites with a deep water table. Like the Sugar Maple, the American Beech does not flourish in moist soils. This species is less tolerant of a high water table than Red Maple. Like Sugar Maple, the American Beech is usually classified as a climax species. American Beech trees are shade tolerant; saplings grow slowly underneath an overstory of conifers or hardwoods, until a break in the canopy allows them to ascend into the overstory.
American Beech is most commonly found in northern hardwood forests, but also grows in mixed forests. Throughout the Adirondack region, American Beech trees may be found in a number of ecological communities:
Beech-Maple Mesic Forest
Hemlock-Northern Hardwood Forest
Appalachian Oak-Pine Forest
Northern White Cedar Rocky Summit
Common associates of American Beech, in addition to Sugar Maple, include Red Maple, Yellow Birch, Black Cherry, and Red Spruce. Characteristic small trees or tall shrubs include Hobblebush and Striped Maple. Canada Mayflower, Common Wood Sorrel, Starflower, Partridgeberry, and Foamflower may be found on the forest floor, in addition to spring ephemerals, such as Trout Lily. Christmas Ferns and a variety of woodferns are also common in these environments; Hay-scented Ferns may be seen in canopy gaps.
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