Rick’s Native Plant of the Month | American beech (Fagus grandifolia)

October 13, 2023

By Rick Bogusch

Bridge Gardens

One of our largest and most handsome forest trees, American beech is native to eastern North America from southeast Canada to northern Florida, and west to Wisconsin. Surprisingly, it can also be found here and there in the mountainous regions of northern Mexico.

American beech grows from 50-100 feet tall and has long, serrated, dark green leaves. Its smooth, silver-gray bark makes it easy to identify in winter, as do its inch-long, tapered buds and the parchment-brown leaves it retains almost until spring.

Flowers are small and hard to see from ground level. Fruits are 2-3 triangular nuts contained within a husk covered with soft spines. These ripen in fall and can cover the ground beneath. Sweet and nutritious, full of fat and protein, beech nuts are usually eaten before getting a chance to germinate. So, beech trees developed another means of reproduction, namely root sprouts. The ability to sprout new trees from its roots, plus the heavy shade it casts and tolerates, allow beech to form small groves within forests. Often, a whole grove will have originated from one tree.


American beech prefers fertile, moist, well-drained soils. In inland forests, it is usually found growing with sugar maple, yellow birch and hemlock, but along the coast, including here on Long Island, it is associated with oaks, hickories and American holly. Colonial farmers looked for land with beeches to clear and plough, because they knew it would produce high yields.

Beech wood is hard, difficult to cut and rots easily, so it has never been an important tree for lumber. Though it bends easily when steamed and is sometimes used for bent-wood furniture, it is most often cut for firewood.

Even though it creates a striking silhouette in the landscape year-round, and is an important food source for over 100 species of moths and butterflies, as well as many birds and mammals, American beech is rarely planted as an ornamental. Its close relative, the European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and its many varieties are usually preferred.


Sadly, the future of American beech trees is bleak. It is beset by both the usually fatal beech bark disease (BBD) and by the equally lethal beech leaf disease (BLD). The former is caused by a native fungus spread by a beech scale introduced by imported European beeches in the early twentieth century. Beech leaf disease is a more recent introduction, first appearing in 2012 in northeast Ohio, but now widespread. Spread by nematodes, it causes severe damage to trees and slow death. Currently, there is no known way to control or manage. Though it may be too early to write the obituary for American beech, it is possible for beeches to disappear from our forests and landscapes.

Beech leaf diseases affects both American and European beeches, but the latter not as seriously. Experimental spray treatments have been recommended, especially for large specimen trees. Last year at Bridge Gardens, we opted instead to deep-fertilize the European beech hedge in late last fall and early this spring and let nature take its course with the grove of natives. The beech hedge looked healthy this season, but showed signs of disease. The native grove was sparsely leaved at the top. There was no dieback, but trees are visibly ailing.

Research continues by many agencies, including Cornell Cooperative Extension and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. Peconic Land Trust is assisting with this research through monitoring the health of beech trees at various Trust properties. Though no preventions or treatments have been developed yet, hope remains. Resistant trees may emerge over time naturally or through plant breeding and serve to re-populate lost trees.

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