The American Beech: “Queen Mother of the Northern Hardwood Forest”

The American beech, Fagus grandifolia, is a deciduous hardwood tree found along the South Tuckahoe Valley Trail on the right as you are walking west on the trail. Beech prefer well-drained sites, so don’t look for them in marshy areas.

Photos by Ann Rohlfing

The most distinctive feature of a beech tree is its smooth, light gray bark. The leaves are elliptical, with pointed tips, straight, parallel veins, and a wavy edge. The leaf and bud arrangement are alternate. As a deciduous tree, it loses most of its golden leaves in the fall but is distinctive in the winter forest in retaining many of its leaves throughout most of the winter. The lone tree in the winter forest with clinging, light brown leaves is easily identifiable as a beech. In winter and early spring, American beech can be recognized for the little spear-shaped buds held at wide angles to the stem.

The American beech could well be called the “queen mother” of the forest, as it is a rich source of both protection and nourishment to the wildlife community. The fruit of the tree, the beechnut, are prolifically produced by the tree and are among the most important of wildlife foods. Raccoons, white-tailed deer, porcupines, red foxes, and eastern chipmunks all rely on beechnuts. In somewhat more northern or western climes, beechnuts are also consumed by black bears, providing a valuable source of protein for their long winter hibernation.

 Protection is also provided to the wildlife community by this “queen mother” in the form of food and nesting sites for a variety of birds. In the spring, buds and blossoms provide food for the White-Throated Sparrow, nesting sites for Coopers Hawks, Northern Goshawks, and Redstarts, and nuts in the fall for Blue Jays, Red-Headed Woodpeckers, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Wild Turkeys, and Ruffed Grouse. Interestingly enough, the beech was closely associated with the extinct Passenger Pigeon, which fed on its nuts and roosted in its branches.

As well as the wildlife community, the American beech has been kind to humans. Native American tribes used products of the beech tree to treat a number of ailments, including pulmonary troubles, burns, sores and poison ivy. The Iroquois crushed and boiled fresh nutmeats, using the liquid as a drink, and used crushed nuts mixed with cornmeal and beans to make bread. The early settlers gathered beechnuts to extract oil, which is similar to olive oil, and used it as both a food source and a lamp oil.

by Marilyn Raymond
Maryland Master Naturalist trainee

Inviting Moss into Your Yard

photo by Kellen McCluskey

A few years ago, a good friend called to let me know she had two extra tickets for the Richmond Garden tour. Needless to say, we had a great time, and we both agreed Norie Burnet’s moss garden was the very best!

Norie explained that when her children were little, she did not have time to battle the moss continually growing in her heavily wooded yards. She finally decided to give in to the natural predisposition of the land. She welcomed and encouraged the moss, eventually converting her entire yard into lush green carpets and pathways of healthy, happy mosses meandering under established trees and shrubs.

This inspired me to welcome moss into my own yard. I now have several pathways and a side yard entirely of moss. Care is pretty easy.

I use a broom or the leaf blower to fluff and remove small sticks, nuts, and leaves. This helps distribute spores. Weeds, I either clip or pull, and I water as needed.

Initially, I collected moss from our woods using a cookie spatula and a jelly roll pan. Then, I arranged pieces between the patio slats and watered and stepped on it with flat shoes to help the rhizomes attach. Sweeping and using the blower helped spread the moss.

Mosses, otherwise known as Bryophytes, have been around for 450 million years and are some of the first land plants. They lack true leaves and roots and have no vascular system. They absorb water, and minerals from dust, through their single-cell-layered leaves. Like all true plants, they have a protected area for the embryo to develop, and they have a waxy cuticle to keep water in their cells. These two developments differentiate mosses from Algae and allowed mosses to become land plants. Algae disperse propagules in water and do not have a waxy cuticle.

Moss actually propagates three ways. Gemmae (from the Latin for “jewels”) are propagules produced in minuscule cups. The Gemmae separate from the parent to form new organisms. Second, mosses are actually large colonies of individual plants that may be manually separated and distributed. The third method is a little more complicated. Spores are produced during a two-stage life cycle. In the first stage, as gametophytes, there are male and female organs. Water is necessary to allow the sperm to swim to the eggs. Once the egg is fertilized, the second stage, or Sporophyte generation, begins. Millions of spores are housed in a small capsule, the size of a grain of rice, perched on a slender stem. Upon maturation, the dry capsule cap will fall off, releasing a cloud of millions of tiny spores that the wind can carry long distances. Sometimes, this two-stage process concludes in as little as a week or a month. It may also take as long as a year. Once the spores have been released, the moss changes to a darker color and may even seem to die back. After a two-week vacation, the moss will green up again.

In my yard, I water the shady areas lightly and frequently. First, there will be a hint of green as a thin mat of algae-like cells begins to form. Eventually, leaves and stems will develop. I continue to water and clean as needed as the moss thickens to make a soft cushiony pathway perfect for bare feet.  There is no need to mow or chemically fertilize. Moss greens up with a quick watering and keeps dust and dirt down. It does not freeze. Best of all, moss is naturally insect and herbivore resistant. Just water, sweep, and weed.

by Laura Blaylock
Maryland Master Naturalist


Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany
Course Guidebook
Professor Catherine Kleier
Regis University, Denver, Colorado
Published by Great Courses 2017
Lecture 3
Pages 20–16

The Magical World of Moss Gardening
By Annie Martin
Published 2015 by Timber Press
Chapter Two: Bryophyte Basics, Botany and Natural History of Mosses
Pages 72–95
Photos of Norie Burnet’s yard
Pages 173–175

Blockston Branch Tea

Blockston Branch looks like my morning tea. The summer drought nearly dried up the stream, but stream flow is back after autumn rains. The waters of Blockston Branch are darker than earlier this year, colored a deep brown. The color comes from chemical compounds called tannins that are released as forest leaves and other debris decay. Tannins exist in many foods and trees as well as in the leaves of black tea.

Nearly every part of a tree contains tannins—the bark, wood, leaves, buds, stems, fruits, seeds, even roots. Tannins contribute to the sharp taste of unripe fruits. Fruit-eating animals and insects don’t like that taste. In a similar way, tannins also protect tree bark from bacterial and fungal infections. Unlike the yellows and reds seen in autumn leaves, the brown tannins in the cell membranes of leaves don’t break down or fade in color. As a result, brown is the final color of the autumn leaf palette.

Tannins stain streams when the cooler temperatures of autumn trigger leaf drop, which adds a dense layer of decaying debris on the ground. Water seeping through forest soils picks up and transports tannins to forested waterways like Blockston Branch.

Visit the Blockston Branch trail at Adkins Arboretum on your next walk. Enjoy the view from the footbridge and follow the stream along the trail for a half mile until it connects to the Arboretum’s upland trails. Stop by the Visitor’s Center afterwards for a hot cup of tea.

by Tawna Mertz
Maryland Master Naturalist

Soup ‘n Walk Report—October 19, 2019

Today was a lovely day for a walk in the woods. The temperature was a cool low 40s to start and climbed to the high 60s by noon. Our theme was dazzling fall color. The color had really developed in the past week with the cooler weather. The drought this year made many leaves drop early, but we still saw some color in those remaining.

Persimmon fruits

After Margan G’s introduction, we split into two groups. There were 32 paid guests. About half the group was from the Coastal Gardeners Club of Bethany Beach, DE. My group headed to the persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) grove. The last tree closest to the Visitor’s Center had at least a dozen yellow fruit for the first time this year! They were losing leaves much earlier this year due to the drought, but some were turning yellow. This is our native persimmon. The yellow xanthophyll color becomes visible when scar tissue between the leaf and the stem disrupts the flow of water and nutrients into the leaf. This causes the green chlorophyll to disappear. Later we would spot our other native fruit tree, the paw paw (Asimina triloba)whose leaves were also turning yellow.

American dogwood

Nearby was a lovely red American dogwood (Cornus florida). This tree develops a red anthocyanin color, which is produced when scar tissue causes sugars to become trapped in the leaf. These trees on the edge of the forest get enough sunlight to develop more of this red color. We turned around and saw the water inlet that allows the wetland water to flow under the dam we were standing on. This inlet has a fence to protect it from the beavers’ desire to cover it with branches and build their own dam. There is chicken wire around many of the trees by the wetland to protect them from beavers.

Continuing on our journey, we passed another dogwood with lots of buds for next year’s blooms. Crossing the bridge over Blockston Branch, we saw brown water loaded with tannin from the dead leaves that cover the banks of the floodplain. We had mentioned earlier that this is the final product of metabolism in the leaf. The banks were covered with green ferns that relish this fertile environment. Next February, we will see purple skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) bloomsand later other ephemerals blooming in this area. The dead leaves keep the nutrients available to new plants and so should be left, if possible, where they drop.

We continued on the path and saw many more leaves and other trees and plants. One particularly interesting bush had many berries with purple caps and red berries below. This was hearts a-burstin’ (Euonymous americana), which we talked about again later after lunch. More yellow leaves had fallen from our tallest tree, the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera). This is the Arboretum’s signature. In May, it has pretty colorful blooms shaped like tulip blossoms.

Sweet gum

Observing the sunlight coming through the treetops, we could see some red tupelo leaves (Nyssa sylvatica). This is also called a black gum, but it is no relation to the sweet gum (Liquidamber styraciflua). Coming out of the woods, we again saw a lot of red color—this time on a red swamp maple (Acer rubrum), sassafras (Sassifras albidum), and some winged sumac (Rhus copallinum). Someone asked about sassafras bark and root for flavoring and tea. This should be used sparingly, if at all. A question was asked about the three different shapes of the sassafras leaves, so we also talked about its use for filé powder to thicken gumbos. Sassafras trees are either male or female. Both bloom a lovely yellow color in April, and the female trees get berries in June that are relished by the birds. Colorful sweet gum tree leaves were showing yellow, orange, and purple.

We passed the pavilion used for our programs for children and adults. There is also a new platform in the meadow for viewing the meadow from above. More huge oak trees along the trail were planted by Tuckahoe State Park. Tree acorns and nuts will be featured in November.

What a tasty lunch!
Happy faces all around.

Lunch was most welcome. Hot soup with squash, kale, and beans and a colorful potato, red beet, and carrot salad were served with double oat bread and pumpkin spice bars. A nutrition talk followed to relate the color in the menu to the color outside on the walk and the phytochemicals now known to be in the food. A centerpiece display included colorful plants, especially the hearts a-burstin’. Its colorful red berries and purple cover also make clear its other name, strawberry bush. Samples and recipes were given to the guests.

Thank you to our crackerjack team of volunteers!

Our 32 guests had the attention of our volunteers, who served the food, did the setup, helped with the tours, and cleaned up after. I am very grateful to Margan G, Joyce A, Joyce W, Gail R, Laura L, Vivian S, Denise D, and the staff. I hope I did not forget anyone. Thank you!

By Julianna Pax
Maryland Master Naturalist
Soup ’n Walk leader