Beauty of the Beech

The winter view from the sunporch includes the colorful leaves of American beech trees.

The winter view of the woodland includes the colorful leaves of Fagus grandifolia.

When I posted this photo on Monday to highlight the flowering Hippeastrum, I couldn’t help but look beyond the windows to admire the parchment-like leaves of a group of young American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia), and the warm color they add to the mostly gray and brown winter landscape.

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Smooth gray bark makes a beech tree easy to identify.

The native beech is common in our neighborhood and easy to spot any time of year because of its smooth gray bark, which is sometimes carved by lovebirds and others who want to make their mark. In fall, the tree’s green leaves turn yellow and then russet brown, but rather than falling, many cling tightly to their branches throughout the cold season, eventually fading to pale parchment and curling into cylinders that rattle against one another in the slightest breeze.

What accounts for the winter dress of the beech tree?

Most deciduous trees shed their leaves by producing an enzyme that creates an abscission layer between the leaf petiole and the tree branch. When the cell walls of this specialized layer disintegrate, the leaf easily detaches in a gust of wind or sprinkle of rain.

Beeches, however, belong to a group of trees that are marcescent [märˈses(ə)nt], meaning they hold on to all or most of their leaves until spring. Like some oaks and hornbeams, beeches either fail to form an abscission layer or delay its development, so leaves stay on the tree long after they become lifeless and dry.

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A neighborhood oak with dull brown leaves on its lowest branches.

Marcescence is more common on younger trees and on the lower, more juvenile, portions of older trees. In my garden, this is particularly true of oaks, but these dull brown, crinkled leaves are a poor substitute for the beech’s tiers of lacy, warm-hued foliage.

No one really knows the purpose of marcescence, but there are theories. Some believe the unpalatable leaves keep tender buds and branches from being browsed by hungry herbivores like deer and moose. Others suggest the leaves provide protection from injury when conditions are especially dry or frigid.

Whatever the reason, I love the rich color the beech trees add to the winter landscape and the whispered conversations offered by their shimmering leaves when I walk among their branches. Surely they must be chatting about spring, and the many blue skies and warm days just ahead.

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32 thoughts on “Beauty of the Beech

  1. Pam Allgood

    A friend always calls this the pink leaf season. It took me awhile to understand what she meant.
    Hope to see you this coming Saturday. A friend and I got tickets for the symposium.

    Reply
  2. Beth @ PlantPostings

    I enjoyed the magic of your words in this post–especially the last sentence. Great information, too! Our back garden is full of Oaks, and each year is different in how many leaves remain on the trees until spring. Nature is so fascinating!

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Eliza–I’ve read that beech is one of the last species to establish in a woodland, a testament to the age of the trees here. You know, they don’t build neighborhoods like this anymore. Before the first house is built, all but a few trees are cut down. Even the top soil is sold.

      Reply
  3. Pauline

    English Beech hang onto their leaves until spring if clipped as a hedge, if allowed to grow into a tree, they loose them in the autumn. Thanks for the explanation, I’ve never understood why until now!

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Pauline–I think my husband and I are going to splurge on a trip to England in December this year. So, for the first time, I’ll have a chance to see those beech hedges in winter.

      Reply
  4. Cathy

    There are lots of beech all around us here too, so interesting to find out the science behind them keeping their leaves. And I always thought it was to keep them warm! 😉 Thanks Marian!

    Reply
  5. Julie

    Lovely post Marian, I can imagine reaching out to touch the bark, as it looks so tactile. Our native beech is darker than yours but has the same habit in holding onto leaves and we have one in a nearby woods, where lovebirds carve their names too. Its very romantic.

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Julie–I’ve been told many of the names on the tree shown above belong to children that grew up in this neighborhood. That’s sweet too, isn’t it…in the very best way.

      Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Judy–I love the change of seasons. They can all be spectacular here, but unlike most gardeners, winter is my favorite and summer is the one I like least. But our short, mild winters, with just enough freezing weather to make them interesting, are fabulous, while summer heat and drought can seem to go on forever.

      Reply
  6. Meta Armstrong

    The beech is a wonderful tree, especially in the winter. I have a large beech and several small ones. When my dad, a retired Forester, saw all of them, he called the younger ones “sons of a beech!”

    Reply
  7. susurrus

    Thanks for introducing me to a new word (marcescent). You’ve reminded me of a large maple tree that Greg Grant noticed in the neighbourhood when he came to visit us a couple of years ago. That year the leaves had exceptional fall colours, but that seems to have been a one off. This year the colours were normal but it has held on to its leaves. Perhaps it just likes to ring the changes!

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      Susan–I’ve learned most of what I know about trees from being a naturalist, rather than a gardener. Gardeners, I think, tend to look at large trees as just “background,” unless, of course, they work on the scale of Capability Brown.

      Reply
      1. susurrus

        I have always had a tendency to ignore the green stuff (=shrubs) but my Dad taught me to like trees. I enjoy the variety you have in different parts of the US.

  8. Brian Skeys

    We have a Witch Hazel which keeps hold of its dead brown leaves through untill spring when the flowers appear. I have to remove them so that we can see the flowers. Now I know what it is called.

    Reply
  9. Christina

    A delightfully written post Marian. Informative too. I think the marcescence must be either temperature of light triggered too. I say this because deciduous oaks in England always lose their leaves whereas the same varieties here in Italy keep their all winter just like your beech and oaks. I love beech hedges with their golden brown coat in winter but prefer seeing bare branches of the oaks but that maybe because it is what I’m used to.

    Reply
  10. Marian St.Clair Post author

    Christina–As much as I love the beech trees, I’m glad most of the leaves come down for the winter months. Sometimes I feel absolutely light starved under the cloak of all these towering trees.

    Reply
  11. Brenda

    I love the sound of snow falling on beech leaves. Your photo of the initials on the bark brought back memories of waiting at the bus stop when I was growing up. We waited for the bus at the end of our road, which had a stand of youngish beeches and a wooden box holding newspapers to be delivered. The newspaper box had thin wires that held the paper bundles together and we used those to carve on the beeches. You have inspired me to stop the next time I am there to see if any beeches remain and, if so, what is left of our tree tattoos.

    Reply
  12. germac4

    I remember looking at trees in winter in England & wondering why some of them still had dead leaves on the branches even at the end of winter… So that is marcescence
    Like you I prefer winter to summer, here is Australia summer can be debilitating & just a matter of keeping plants & trees alive.

    Reply

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