American beech

Fagus grandifolia
Family: Fagaceae

Natural HistoryAmerican Beech Leaves
Leaves and branch of American beech
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

American beech is the only member of the Fagus genus that is native to North America. It is probably best known for its very smooth, gray bark that usually has someone's initials carved into it. It is a slow-growing, long-lived species that may survive for 300 to 400 years. Little grows in the dense shade of a beech tree but, if low branches are left on the tree, no groundcover or grass is needed.

Habitat & Range

American beech is found throughout much of eastern North America, from Nova Scotia south to northern Florida and west as far as Texas and Arkansas. Mill Creek Preserve in Alachua County, just 25 miles north of the University of Florida main campus, is home to the southernmost population of American beech in North America.

American beech grows best in rich, moist soils and is found in bottomlands and upland forests.

Wildlife Use

The nuts have a high oil content and are a valuable source of nutrition for numerous wildlife species. Black bear, squirrels, wild turkey, and grouse all eat significant amounts of beechnuts, while fox, ducks, bluejays, and many small rodents also consume the seeds. Chickadees nest in branches of the trees and many animals use the hollowed-out trunks of mature trees as homes.

Human Use

The wood from American beech is heavy, dense, strong, and resistant to splitting. Since it burns efficiently and has a high heat value, it is often used for charcoal and fuelwood. The harvested timber is used for rough lumber, flooring, plywood, and railroad ties. Beech wood is also used to make tool handles, baskets, veneer, and novelty items. The soft, reddish tinge of the wood makes it desirable for furniture, and its naturally clean odor makes good food storage containers. Tar from the tree, called creosote, is used to protect other woods from rotting. This species also makes for an excellent shade tree. The leaves and bark of the tree provide extracts for the making of fabric dyes. Early American colonists even used the leaves to stuff mattresses.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: American beech is a medium-sized deciduous tree that reaches heights of 60 to 80 feet. This stately tree has a short trunk and a broad-spreading, rounded crown when growing in the open, but a long, branch-free trunk when in the forest.
Leaves: The leaves are simple, alternately arranged, and elliptical to ovate with distinct, parallel side veins and a sharply-toothed margin. The stiff, leathery leaves are glossy and light green above, with a paler, yellow-green color below. The leaf tip is tapered. Leaves have a very short petiole and may be found clustered at the ends of small branches.
Twigs: The slender, light-brown twigs take on a zig-zagging pattern. An obvious characteristic are its long (3/4 inch) buds that resemble long thorns.
Bark: The bark is distinctively smooth, tight and steel gray, with occasional dark patches. The twigs are yellowish-gray and hairy with very long, thin, reddish-brown buds.
Flowers: The American beech is a monoecious tree. The flowers are quite inconspicuous.
Fruit: The fruits are shiny, triangular, brown nuts that are encased in a prickly bur and often found in pairs, on short stalks. The nuts are small but are sweet and edible.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:
  • The leaves of American elm are similar, but the trees have very different bark.

 

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