FIELD NOTES: American Beech
~by Jim Eagleman
My dad knew my weakness for chewing gum and used it for gentle bribes and coaxing. As a kid accompanying him on his vet calls to rural Pennsylvania farms, I witnessed a lot of interesting things—calves being born, lots of kittens, a cool milkhouse—and I hated to leave each farm. To announce our departure, a fresh piece of Beech-nut Gum was offered. I tore into the foil wrapper, folding the gum over and over. Those first mouthfuls of almost peppery sweetness were heaven!
During a trip to a distant farm my dad took us to the Daniel Boone Historic Homestead. He always tried to create memorable experiences for me. He told me to read anything inside the cabin I could share with my classmates. By the cabin door was a photo of a carved piece of bark with the inscription, “D. Boone ciled a bar on this tree in 1760.” The museum lady reported that the carving was on a beech tree. I wondered if the carved beech tree was used to make my favorite Beechnut Gum.
With any mention of the American beech tree, no matter how scientific or informal, I recall those times with my dad. Author Wendell Berry calls it the “significance of place.” Things first learned accompanying the experience, sensory things like hearing or smelling, and where, are deeply connected to our recall. They are just as important as the actual experience.
The American Beech, Fagus grandifolia (edible large leaves), is found from Nova Scotia, southwest to northern Florida and into eastern Texas. Paleobotanists tell us that at one time the beech was found throughout most of North America and could still occupy this range. But, because of the ice ages they disappeared from the western two-thirds of the continent.
The smooth, gray bark, almost elephantlike skin in appearance, and the saw-toothed margins on simple leaves with parallel veins, are trademark features of the American Beech. Triangular nuts on mature trees (40 years and older) are covered in spiny husks that darken into fall. These nuts are part of the forest’s mast crop which includes walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts, feeding people and wildlife. The beechnut flavor I recall in the gum was not from the beech nut oil, but from two mints, spearmint or peppermint.
I continue to look for the edible nut crop each year at my favorite, big, beech trees. The trees cycle anywhere from two to eight years, requiring my return to see if it is an “on” year. What we see in beautiful beech flooring and furniture has been crafted by expert wood workers. In its rougher form it is preferred by woodstove owners because of its high density and good wood burning qualities.
Reaching a height of 80 feet and taller, the American beech is often the tallest tree in the forest. Strikes by lightning and open wounds are common. The cambium layer, located just inside the bark, keeps it vital despite the inner, non-living heartwood core that rots, resulting in a hollowedout base. It is often used by wildlife as a den site and food source.
Take a walk through any Brown County woodland and you will find the American Beech tree is a prominent member. It is associated with sugar maple, occasionally musclewood, and shrubs like viburnum and highbush cranberry. The forest complex of beech-maple is often compared to another association, oak-hickory, and the two occur in the Midwest temperate zone. They are usually close with similar understories and herbal layers. It’s the oak-hickory grouping that is more economically valued by commercial foresters and it’s these trees, mostly oaks, that we see loaded on logging trucks.
You might come across a beech tree with deep incisions of heart-shapes and initials during your trailside hike. It’s the smooth, gray bark of the American beech tree that is most chosen by pocketknife carvers. When they are asked, “Where else might you carve your initials?”—”On the sandy beach!” should be the reply. I do not condone the practice of defacing trees. This destructive practice is harmful. We all agree the beech tree with its smooth gray bark looks far more beautiful and natural without deep scars and cuts.
My annual fall ritual is to sit under some beech trees in my woods as the leaf drop continues. Leaf litter from the beech and other trees cover the mast crop that squirrels find. I suspect what they leave behind the doe and her twin fawns will find. Beech leaves turn from summer green to autumn golden, then winter tan. Winter winds will rattle leaves on the beech tree’s branches that retain next spring’s bud.
I’ve always been a fan of the beech.