While American beech may be instantly recognizable as the silvery tree kids want to carve their initials into, its wide canopy and massive trunk is a familiar sight in parks and large, open areas. This long-lived tree provides copious shade and beauty. Drooping spikes of white/green flowers bloom from March – May, followed by prickly husks containing triangular brown nuts that ripen September-October. In fall, the glossy green leaves turn golden bronze and tend to remain on the tree throughout winter. Early settlers, understanding that beech trees indicated fertile soil, quickly removed them for farming. Migrating passenger pigeons, which fed beechnuts to their nestlings, populated the trees so heavily that limbs broke off from the weight of the birds. American beech is distinguishable from its cousin, European beech, by curved prickles on its husks and narrower leaves with more-pronounced serrations.
Native habitats include woodlands, wooded slopes, bluffs, shady riverbanks, and better-drained areas in swamps. In Ohio, beeches are often used in parks, golf courses, and large acreages. Ideal for open areas, naturalized landscapes, woodlands, borders, or for providing shade along streets. Canopy will be smaller in crowded areas.
Grows 50–70' tall with a spread of 40-80’.
Prefers part to full shade.
Thrives in acidic, loamy, well-drained soils; tolerates alkaline, sandy or clay soils. Does poorly in drought or overly wet soils.
Gray bark is thin and smooth. Stems have an interesting zig-zag form.
American beech is a larval host for 126 species of Lepidoptera, including rosy maple moth and spun-glass slug moths (pictured here). Wood-boring beetles and gall flies lay their eggs on beech, and aphids and leafhoppers feed on the tree. Beechnuts are a favorite food source for small and large mammals and are also eaten by birds, including ducks, woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, American crows, and blue jays. Beech buds are eaten by purple finches, and the sap is a food source for yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The generous canopy is a nesting site for red-shouldered hawks, Acadian flycatcher, and pileated woodpeckers.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used parts of the tree to treat poison ivy, burns, frostbite, headaches, vertigo, and internal worms. The bark and leaves contain a substance that treats ulcers and inflammation from dysentery. Leaves were used to make a tonic that cleaned the digestive system and increased appetite. Tea made from the bark alleviated pain. Water found in hollows of decaying trees was used to cure scrapes and skin diseases.
Although it’s often recommended that the nuts be cooked or roasted before eating due to the high tannin content, modest amounts of raw nuts may be tolerated. Early settlers ground the nuts into flour for cakes, and Native Americans mixed powdered nuts, cornmeal, and berries into their breads. Europeans roast and grind the nuts for a coffee substitute.
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