Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: American Beech

A winter walk in the woods is the best time to appreciate the stately American beech with its rounded crown of many long-spreading and horizontal branches. The most distinguishing feature isn't its shape, however, but the smooth, steel-gray bark that covers the trunk and branches like a tight skin. To the envy of humans, even in old age the beech retains its smooth bark. Unfortunately, this smoothness is as irresistible as wet concrete to human scribes and the bark is usually disfigured by initials or carvings that remain for the life of the tree. This permanent, arboreal record-keeping is made possible by the rapid formation of wound cork (the tree's equivalent to a scab that forms over skinned knees). Tears, cuts, or incisions in the bark are quickly sealed over by the cork cambium, leaving distinctive scars. One of the oldest scars on an American beech was made by Daniel Boone--"D. Boone cilled a bar on tree in year 1760."

American beech (Fagus grandifolia).

Only one species of beech, Fagus grandifolia, grows in North America, and colonists quickly learned that its presence indicated good soil; the trees grow in deep, rich loam. Beech trees are typical of the hardwood forests of the eastern United States. In Illinois, growing along the eastern border, they represented a transition between the beech-maple forests to the east and the prairie and oak-hickory forests to the west. The American beech can be found in Lake and Cook counties, the southern fourth of the state, and extending along the eastern border from Vermilion County south.

Beeches are slow-growing and may attain an age of 300 to 400 years. Heights of 70-120 feet are common. Their roots are shallow and spreading, except for a deep tap root. The flowers and leaves appear together, from April to May, and both sexes are on the same tree. Male flowers (staminate) are in round heads on long drooping stems. The female flowers (pistallate) are in clusters on short stems. The leaves are alternate, shiny green, elliptical, and have saw-toothed edges. In the fall they turn yellow or bronze. Pioneers collected the leaves in autumn to fill their mattresses. A settler wrote in 1862, "The smell is grateful and wholesome, they do not harbor vermin, are very elastic and may be replenished annually without cost."

The fruits of the beech are small triangular nuts enclosed in a spiny bur. The bur splits open in October releasing the nut meats. These nuts, which are 20% protein and 50% fat, are responsible for the generic name Fagus, which means "to eat." The early pioneers fattened their Thanksgiving turkeys and hogs on beech nuts. The beech nut was also the number one food choice of the passenger pigeon. A single bird could consume a half pint of nuts a day.

When Prince Maximilian toured the Midwest in 1833, he commented that the beech forests were "the most splendid forests I had yet seen in America." For a glimpse of a beech forest visit the Russell M. Duffen Nature Preserve at Forest Glen in Vermilion County, American Beech Woods Nature Preserve in Lincoln Trail State Park in Clark County, Robeson Hills Nature Preserve in Lawrence County, and along Hamburg Hill in Union County.

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