In the Garden: Beech-Nut

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By Charles Kidder

American Beech

As considerable dental work can attest, I consumed far more than my fair share of Beech-Nut chewing gum as a kid, all before sugar-free alternatives became commonplace.  Ditto for Life-Savers, also owned by the same company at one time.  Although I was aware of beech trees, I must have thought that beechnuts were merely some not-so-secret ingredient of my favorite sugar bombs.

As for the trees themselves, beeches are one of those species most people can easily recognize, generally by the carving on the bark. And I certainly hope that statement put you on full alert! I realize that Gazette readers, of course, would not commit such an atrocity.  But just in case: Never carve “Hamlet hearts Ophelia” or some such, into a tree’s bark.  Send your sweetie a proper Valentine.

The American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) is the only species native to the United States, growing all the way from Nova Scotia to the Florida Panhandle and on over to eastern Texas.  (A closely related species occurs in a few localities in the cloud forests of northeastern Mexico.) Some authorities claim that there are actually three races of American Beech within the species, allowing it to occupy this large range. Regardless, the beech tree growing in Florida is undoubtedly genetically far removed from its cousin in Maine. Attempting to grow a tree with northern provenance in the Deep South, or vice-versa, would surely result in failure.

Even without showy flowers, beeches are attractive in all seasons. With the arrival of spring—only a month or two off now—the delicately translucent beech leaves unfold. As they mature, the leaves become a deep green, with slight hairiness along the veins on the underside. In the fall, the leaves will briefly turn a soft yellow, quickly go to bronze and then take on their winter pallor.

And winter may well be the best time for beeches.  With the leaves of most deciduous tree species no longer blocking the view, the smooth, gray beech bark shines in the bright sunlight.  While most trees growing in a forest lose their lower branches as they get shaded out, the beeches retain these branches and spread out laterally.   Leaves typically persist on younger beech trees, as well as on the lower branches of older ones.  If you walk through—or even drive past—a beech forest, you can’t help but notice this understory of light brown- to parchment-colored leaves.  On a sunny winter day they light up the woods like lanterns.  And with a little wind, they rustle hypnotically.

The inconspicuous female beech flowers mature into nuts the size of a small fingernail. I have a vague recollection of eating a few many years ago, finding them not bad. Literature describes them as somewhat bitter, but not nearly as much as acorns. One source says they “are mildly toxic, so don’t eat too many.” I am personally making no recommendations.

The American Beech is not grown widely as an ornamental, and no cultivars are available. I checked at Ivy Nursery, however, and they do have some of the straight species in stock. A tree that accepts either sun or shade, American Beech only requires a moderate amount of water once established.  Don’t plant it in areas of poor drainage, and also avoid hot, dry windy sites. It doesn’t appreciate compacted soils, so it probably won’t thrive where heavy equipment has been used recently, i.e. most newer developments.

Conversely, the European Beech (F. sylvatica) is widely grown, particularly in Europe and the northeastern U.S., where it enjoys the cooler summers.  Dozens of cultivars are out there, with a variety of leaf colors and shapes, as well as growth habits ranging from weeping to fastigiate. Perhaps most commonly seen are those with purplish leaves, sometimes known as ‘Purpurea’; paler forms are known as Copper Beech.  The cultivar ‘Roseomarginata’ (or ‘Purpurea Tricolor’) features purple leaves with rose and cream edging.

To some extent, all these cultivars with alternative foliage colors will be most brilliant when the foliage first emerges and fade somewhat with summer heat. To avoid leaf scorching on the Tricolor Beech, some high shade would be beneficial during the hottest part of the day.  Speaking with Heidi at Ivy Nursery, she noted that even if the foliage is damaged in particularly hot weather, the tree will be okay and will leaf out normally next spring. She added that they currently have Tricolor and other purple-leafed varieties in stock.

Beeches have the rap of being difficult to transplant, but that might only apply to trees being moved from the wild. Woody plant guru Michael Dirr writes that he once transplanted two hundred seedlings, and all survived. Nevertheless, he posits that they may well benefit from the addition of mycorrhizal fungi from their native soil. Some nurseries actually blend these beneficial organisms into the potting mixture.  Otherwise, you could find a stand of native beeches, “borrow” a cup of their soil, and mix it into the backfill when you plant.

But what about the Beech-Nut company?  It has a long history of mergers, acquisitions and break-ups, not to mention a scandal that involved labeling sugar-water as apple juice. When founded toward the end of the nineteenth century in upstate New York, the primary product of The Imperial Packing Company was ham, known for its distinctive nutty flavor.  But company execs thought they needed a more down-to-earth name. They looked at area forests dominated by beech trees, and chose the rather wholesome, “natural-sounding” new name for the company. The sugar-water came several decades later.