Trees of the Adirondack Park: American Beech Leaves at the Paul Smiths VIC (13 October 2013)

Trees of the Adirondacks:
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Trees of the Adirondacks: American Beech leaves have widely-spaced, pointed teeth. American Beech on the Barnum Brook Trail (25 July 2012) Trees of the Adirondacks: American Beech leaves have widely-spaced, pointed teeth. American Beech on the Barnum Brook Trail (25 July 2012)

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a large, deciduous tree that grows in the Adirondack Mountains and flourishes in well-drained areas of the VIC, often near Sugar Maples. The American Beech is also known as North American beech. It is the only native species of beech which grows in North America; the European Beech was introduced from Europe and is a popular landscaping tree.

Trees of the Adirondacks: The leaves of American Beech trees turn yellowish to reddish brownn in the fall. (13 October 2013)
The leaves of American Beech trees turn yellowish to reddish brown in the fall. American Beech on the Loggers Loop Trail near the VIC building (13 October 2013).

Identification of the American Beech: This tree normally grows from 50 to 70 feet tall, with a rounded crown. 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 of the American Beech are elliptical, with pointed tips, and have many straight, parallel veins and coarse teeth. The leaves are green during the summer, turning golden yellow, lustrous brown, then pale brown in autumn. They remain on the tree well into winter. 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.

Keys to identifying the American Beech and differentiating it from other deciduous trees and large shrubs include its leaves, bark, growth habit, and habitat.

Trees of the Adirondacks: The bark of the American Beech is smooth and light grey. American Beech tree on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012). 
The bark of the American Beech is smooth and light grey. American Beech tree on the Barnum Brook Trail (28 July 2012).

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 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. The distinctive winter buds of beech trees are up to ¾" long and narrowly ellipsoid in shape.

Uses of the American Beech: The quality of wood 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 leaves and bark can be used to make dyes.

Trees of the Adirondacks: American Beech leaves at the VIC in winter (19 February 2014). Photo by Tom Boothe. Used by permission.
American Beech trees usually retain their leaves through the winter. American Beech leaves (19 February 2014). Photo by Tom Boothe. Used by permission.

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 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.

Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: Male Wood Duck on Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC (24 September 2014) 
Wood Ducks nest in existing cavities in American Beech and other deciduous species. Male Wood Duck on Heron Marsh at the Paul Smiths VIC (15 May 2014).

Wildlife Value of the American Beech: Beech nuts are an important source of food for wildlife, including Raccoons, White-tailed Deer, Porcupines, and Foxes. The nuts are a vital food source to squirrels and chipmunks. A poor mast year will visibly thin their population. Eastern Chipmunks store beechnuts deep in underground burrows. Red Squirrels bury large and small caches of the nuts or store them in burrows, brush piles, or stone walls. Beechnuts are also consumed by Black Bears, who load up on calories for winter hibernation. This tree is the caterpillar host for the Early Hairstreak butterfly.

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. American Beech are used as a nest site by Cooper's Hawks and American Redstarts. American Beech trees provide nest cavities for cavity nesters, like the Wood Duck. Beechnuts an important food source for Blue Jays, Red-headed Woodpeckers, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

Birds of the Adirondack Mountains: American Redstart on the Black Pond Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (15 May 2014) 
American Beech trees are used as a nesting site by American Redstarts. Male American Redstart on the Black Pond Trail at the Paul Smiths VIC (15 May 2014).

The American Beech is a common tree species in the breeding habitat of a variety of birds, including :

Distribution of the American Beech: American Beech is found in the eastern part of the US, within 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.

This species is one of the indicator species of the Northern Hardwood Forest. It also occurs in mixed hardwoods with Sugar Maple, birch, and hemlock. American Beech trees do best in well-drained upland sites. In New York State, the American Beech occurs from sea level in coastal Long Island to high elevation forests in the mountains of northern New York.

American Beech at the Paul Smiths VIC: The American Beech does not grow in the VIC's wetland areas, such as Heron Marsh and Barnum Bog. Like the Sugar Maple, the American Beech does not flourish in moist soils, so look for it in upland areas. The Jenkins Mountain Trail and the south side of Heron Marsh are good places to look for Americn Beech. The most convenient place to observe the American Beech is on the Barnum Brook Trail This species is one of the eleven tree species marked with signage along this trail. The American Beech is on the right-hand side of the trail, near the gazebo and just beyond the Sugar Maple, providing a convenient way of identifying the preferred habitat of these trees.

References

Trees of the Adirondack Mountains



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