Out My Backdoor: A Big Tree for Big Places

American Beech/Terry W. Johnson


By Terry W. Johnson

Most of the suggestions I offer in this column regarding how you can enhance your property for wild plants and wildlife are applicable to yards of any size. The recommendation I am making this month is best suited for large yards – really big yards. This is because I am writing about the American beech. This tree is extremely valuable to wildlife; however, its large size makes it unsuitable for average-sized yards.

American beech is a native tree that grows to heights of 80 to 125 feet. Its canopy can span an area 60 feet wide or more. It can also live for more than 350 years.

Its toothed leaves are quite long (up to 6 inches). In fall, they turn a pleasing golden yellow. Eventually, as winter approaches, the leaves change to a lustrous brown hue. Interestingly, the tree retains its leaves well into winter. Consequently, it is easier to spot beech trees from winter on until our forests don fresh green foliage in the spring. The trunk of the American beech is covered with smooth, silver-gray bark.

Although these trees are sometimes found on moist upland sites, they grow best in rich bottomland soils. However, the species does poorly in urban landscapes plagued with air pollution.

When planted in a large open lawn surrounding a house, the American beech makes a stunning shade tree. But this is not a tree you want growing near your house. The beech has shallow roots that can easily damage pipes and foundations. On the other hand, it seems to flourish in the shade of other hardwoods.

The tree's small, three-sided nuts are enclosed in a spiny burr. Each bur typically contains two to three nuts that are high in protein and fat. Approximately 1,600 seeds weigh about a pound. It takes approximately 40 years for a tree to mature enough to produce its first crop. The largest crops are produced by trees 60 or more years old.

Like many oaks, the beech does not yield large crops of nuts every year. Instead, it bears bumper crops every two to eight years. Since these large crops can be as much as 80 percent higher than during other years, the size of the beechnut crop can have a huge impact on the animals that eat its nourishing seeds.

Long before the first Europeans landed on the shores of what is now the United States, Native Americans used the beech for food and medicine. Beechnuts and the tree’s young, tender foliage were eaten. They also used the trees to create medicines to treat ailments ranging from burns, sores and heart problems to rashes caused by contact with poison ivy.

Later settlers pulverized the inner bark to create a powder that was mixed with grains to make cakes and bread. The nuts were also used as a substitute for coffee.

Francis Porcher, a surgeon who served that served in the Civil War, recorded in his diary how beech leaves were even used for bedding. "The leaves of beech trees, collected at autumn, in dry weather, form an admirable article for filling beds,” Porcher wrote. “They smell is grateful and wholesome; they do not harbor vermin, are very elastic, and may be replenished annually without cost."

Today, beech wood is still used to make such things such as wood pulp, baskets, flooring, inexpensive furniture and tool handles. By the way, despite what is popularly believed, beechnuts were never used in making Beechnut chewing gum.

For centuries, folks have carved their initials in the smooth bark of beech trees. One of the most famous carvings was discovered on a large beech purported to be at least 350 years old growing near Louisville, Ky. Cut into the tree's trunk is a date from the late 18th century and the message, "D. Boone Kilt a bar." When the tree fell in 1916, the section of the trunk on which the carving appeared was preserved and is now on display at The Filson Historical Society in Louisville. I would like to believe Daniel Boone left the carving. However, the authenticity of the carving is disputed.

These days it is next to impossible to find a large beech tree growing in places frequented by the public that is not adorned with hearts and expressions of love. Unfortunately, in some locales, the trunks of beech trees also bear inappropriate language.

Mature beech trees are a valuable source of food for a wide range of wildlife. For example, American beech serves as a host plant for at least 19 species of butterflies and moths including the emperor moth and red-spotted purple butterfly.

In addition, each spring and summer the butterfly and moth caterpillars and other insects living on the beech tree's foliage act as a magnet for birds. Among the birds that regularly hunt for insects and other invertebrates in beech trees are indigo buntings, tanagers, vireos and warblers. The protein provided is essential to the diets of adult and young birds alike.

Although deer shy away from eating beech twigs and foliage, they readily consume beechnuts. The nuts are also eaten by other mammals such as black bears, raccoons, white-footed mice, chipmunks and gray, flying and fox squirrels. This is not surprising considering that the nuts are loaded with protein and fat.

Beechnuts are also gobbled up by a host of gamebirds including wood ducks, quail and wild turkeys. The long list of nongame birds that do not pass up the chance to eat beechnuts includes the likes of northern flickers, tufted titmice, blue jays, American crows, scarlet tanagers, red-winged and rusty blackbirds, purple finches, crossbills, white-breasted nuthatches and hairy, red-headed, red-bellied and pileated woodpeckers.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers excavate shallow reservoirs in the trunks of beech trees. While this is done to provide them with a source of tree sap, critters such as butterflies, moths, squirrels and other birds also take advantage of the sugary liquid.

American beech trees also provide cavities for nesting and roosting birds, mammals and other wildlife.

It is ironic that we do not see nearly as many mature American beech trees as we once did. In fact, I suspect many hunters and other folks who spend lots of time outdoors would be hard-pressed to locate a single mature American beech. There are a number of reasons for this. For example, beech trees are often cut for firewood because the tree's wood burns slowly. In addition, modern forestry management practices work against slow-growing trees like the American beech.

Yet since beech trees are so valuable to so many, if you are fortunate to have one on your land, I urge you to refrain from cutting it down for firewood or other purposes. And if you are fortunate enough to have a yard large enough to accommodate a beech tree, I recommend you set one out.

When you plant a beech tree, you are making a long-term investment in the beauty of your property and the biological diversity of the plant and animal communities living there.

Terry W. Johnson is a retired Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”