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.
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