Speaking of Nature: Exploring beech trees

  • The smooth gray bark of a healthy American beech is easy to spot and beautiful to behold. BILL DANIELSON

  • The ravages of beech bark disease can make a beech tree almost unrecognizable. BILL DANIELSON

  • This is a dried stem of a beachdrops plant emerging from a forest floor covered with beech leaves. BILL DANIELSON

  • Bill Danielson

For The Recorder
Sunday, December 10, 2017

This year has been an odd one. With the political circus unfolding around us every day, the recent revelations about the misbehavior of so many men and with the international climate such as it is, there has been little to cheer for this year. Still, there are plenty of things that are good in the world and for me most of them are found outside. That was the realization that compelled me to put on my boots and stack some firewood this past weekend.

Every year, a truck arrives in my driveway laden with the winter’s wood. Every year, I guide the truck as it backs up past my garage and makes a tight, 90-degree turn toward the woodpile. Every year, I hope the driver can dump the wood as close to the stacking area as possible. This year, he did a great job, and I gave him a big tip.

Still, despite the wondrous delivery job, I am an expert at procrastination. The reasons for waiting until “next week” are myriad and can include obstacles, like the fact that it’s too soon, too hot, too wet or just too boring.

I am eventually forced to take action by the threat of a looming storm, but this year, I decided to take advantage of a beautiful day to get some work done while clearing my mind of unhappy thoughts.

As I picked through the different pieces of wood, I kept track of each species and tried to imagine the forest in which the trees had grown. I had to switch wood guys two years ago, because my regular guy retired and I noticed an immediate change. The new guy seems to bring only oak, but every now and then, an odd chunk of maple or birch will show up.

This year’s firewood contains a noticeably higher non-oak content than last year’s wood, and at one point, I found myself holding a beautiful piece of beech. There’s nothing quite like this species, and it is easy to pick out of a crowd because of the bark. That, I thought, would be a great idea for a column. So, here we go.

The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is the only species of its genus found in North America, which is why I’m able to claim that there’s nothing quite like it in our area. In the Northeast, this tree is quite common and it is featured prominently in the Society of American Foresters’ Beech-Birch-Maple cover type. Locally, this species can be found almost everywhere and a walk through your local woods will probably take you past an American beech in fairly short order.

The species can be identified by its thin, tight bark, which is a uniform light gray color. Anyone familiar with red maple will know that young maples also have tight, light gray bark, but the texture is quite different. Maple bark can be smooth, but the bark of the American beech is more uniformly rough, and it doesn’t really change in texture as the tree gets older. The texture of maple bark, on the other hand, is prone to changing quite dramatically as the trees age.

The only factors that might cause the beautiful bark of beech trees to be marred in any way are damage, disease and vandalism. The American beech produces wonderfully delicious nuts in that are incredibly popular with a wide variety of wildlife species. Chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys, deer and bear are all gluttons when it comes to beech nuts, and they all fatten up on the fallen nuts every autumn. The nuts are so good that I have even been known to collect and eat them from time to time.

In fact, the nuts are so desirable that bears are often unwilling to wait for them to fall. Instead, the bears will climb the trees in pursuit of a delicious meal and in doing so they inevitably damage the bark with claw marks.

You will remember that I described beech bark as “thin” earlier, and that quality makes it particularly good at preserving such marks for decades. Many a beech in our area bears the marks of bears.

Another factor that will disfigure an American beech is an insect-fungus combination known as beech bark disease. The thinness of the tree’s bark makes it an easy target for a scale insect known as Cryptococcus fagisuga, which feeds on the tree and creates a vector for a canker fungus. Invisible, as far as I can tell, these two organisms attack beech trees throughout our area, and only the disfiguration of the bark betrays their presence.

Finally, there is a magnificent parasitic plant that is associated with the American beech. Called beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana), this plant lives by tapping into the shallow roots of beech trees and siphoning off nutrients. Because it gets its nutrients from the its host, the plant has no green leaves and only sends up thin, flesh-colored stems with small purple flowers. It blooms in the fall, and is currently in the top 10 of my personal “most wanted” list. I am formally announcing my plans to find this plant in full bloom in 2018.

If you find yourself in need of a quiet distraction from the human world I would heartily suggest a walk in the woods in search of a beech tree. At this time of year the smaller trees may still hold on to their thin, tan leaves, but you want to find a larger tree so you can feel that beautiful thin bark for yourself. Who knows, you might even find the claw marks of bears that climbed the tree in search of a delicious autumn feast.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.