It took a while for me to figure out. Figure out the little trees, clinging dearly to their leaves well into winter. Hanging on as if the trees’ very life depended on it. I would see these trees from the window of my truck, as I would drive past. Such a common sight. Many woods contained the mystery trees.
Finally, I got myself established in my cabin in the woods, moving from, what some might call the city to, definitely not the city. Finally I had time to hike, to identify plants, both large and small, that had been intriguing me. My mystery tree, it turns out is American beech, Fagus grandifolia, a tree native to eastern North America. American beech is not necessarily a small tree, but can grow to be 80 feet tall, with a diameter of 3 feet or more, and can live 300 to 400 years. I was noticing the small trees, simply because they were so visible, their leaves still there, against the otherwise empty forest understory. American beech is a tree that tolerates shade, doesn’t get discouraged, keeps growing, even in the understory.
The leaves are reminiscent of a tree that is near and dear to my heart. It is reminiscent of the American chestnut, having sawtooth edged leaves, a coloring similar to the American chestnut in the fall, and being shade tolerant. It is no wonder. American beech and American chestnut are both in the beech family Fagaceae.
An easy way to tell that you’ve found an American beech, is by looking at the end of the branches, where you will see long, tapered tips that look much like cigars.
Another clue that you have come upon an American beech, is its bark, which is smooth and silver gray, even into old age. The tree is monoecious, which means it gets both male and female flowers on the same tree. The wind does the job of pollination. The pollinated flowers grow into beech nuts, which are eaten by many mammals (including humans) and birds. Every two or three years the tree will produce a bumper crop of these beech nuts. It may take 40 to 60 years for the tree to begin producing these flowers and nuts though.
The American beech reproduces both by seed, and by sprouting seedlings from its shallow roots. It can be found along streams and bottom lands, although it does well, in most any situation, given adequate moisture. Must be moist up here on my mountain. American beech is plentiful up here.