Native Tree of the Week: American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

October 2nd, 2012 at 4:04 pm by under Chad's WLFI Weather Blog



If you have large beech trees on your land, more than likely, the land was forest at the time of settlement.  American Beech is strictly a forest tree.  It doesn’t like direct exposure to the elements, doesn’t like open, exposed countryside, prefers shade & has bark so thin that it blisters very, very easy in the elements.  The tree does not tolerate drought well at all & needs sustained, persistently moist soil through the year.  The species also is intolerable of fire.  Even a low fire will severely blister beech bark, especially on younger & pole sized specimens.  It will greatly weaken older trees.  Heat & drought will wither foliage & cause scorch much like Ohio Buckeye, especially in soils that are exposed.  The tree is also very susceptible to construction projects, as it does not like it roots disturbed or elevation changed in any way.  Many times, when homes are being built or subdivision constructed, it is hard to save the beeches if you want a more wooded subdivision if any soil is moved around the tree.  Some may make it for a while, but boy do they struggle.


In our viewing area, it is highly-likely that there were no beech trees in Newton, Jasper, Benton, White & Pulaski counties at settlement with beech confined to the deeply-eroded ravines of creeks & streams in Tippecanoe, Warren, Fountain, Montgomery & Carroll counties.  Its occurrence tended to be higher in Tipton, Howard, Miami & parts of Fulton counties.  In parts of the viewing area there is a real dicotomy in natural areas & native vegetation, largely due to geology & geomorphology.  An area I like to call the Sugar Creek Entrenched area is a natural division where glacial meltwater & floods have carved out picturesque canyons & ravines in areas of thinner glacial till.  This environment is common in Turkey Run & Shades State Parks, as well as areas in Warren, Fountain, Montgomery, through Tippecanoe to Carroll, Cass, Miami & as far northeast as Huntington.  These deeply-eroded ravines are cool, moist, forest environments with lots of beech, sugar maple & tuliptree.  They are refugia for forest species in an increasingly prairie biome.  This habitat has acted as a refugia for odd, disjunct populations of Eastern Hemock, Canada Yew & native Eastern White Pine in Turkey Run, Pine Hills & Shades State Parks (pocket populations left over from the cold, wet climate at the end of the last Ice Age).


TYPE #1:  Southern Flatwoods Beech

There are 3 types, subspecies or genotypes of American beech in Indiana.  The first type has a much greater tolerance of wetter, tighter, clayey soils compared to the other two.  With genetic origins in the southern U.S., this beech is a significant part of the dense flatwoods forests of southeastern Indiana.  Here a strictly pin oak-sweetgum-beech-red maple forest formed pure stands.  Here, it not only grows densely in the understory of the flatwoods, but also in the overstory with large specimens in nearly pure stands in older forests.  There are some areas in the Driftless area of southwestern Indiana & in the southern bottomlands region of southwestern Indiana where you can find this type of beech.  I have actually seen this beech frequently with Cherrybark Oak (Quercus pagodaefolia) near the Ohio River in Spencer & Perry counties in Indiana & in frequent with Sweet gum in Pike County & Dubois counties in southern Indiana.  In these areas, it tolerates standing water well, but cannot tolerate deeper river flooding.

TYPE #2:  Appalachian Beech

Trees in the hill country of south-central Indiana have more of an Appalachian origin. It is usually accompanied by more mesophytic species like tuliptree, various oaks & hickories, white ash, maples, basswood.  These beeches grow on lower slopes, usually with a north-facing tendency & in coves where it likes the company of tuliptree & maples.

TYPE #3:  Central & Northern Till Plain (& Moraine) Beech

Finally, in central & northern Indiana, beech is apart of the maple-beech belt from the till plains of Ohio & Ontario, where it is usually accompanied by American basswood, White Ash, Sugar & Black Maples & Chinkapin & Northern Red Oak.  In this often calcareous glacial till, the species formerly formed pure stands & is considered a climax species with maple in these areas.

In the eastern part of the Tipton Till Plain & Northern Lakes & Moraine Region of Indiana, however, it is a relatively new tree to the landscape.  Pretty Lake corings in Noble County (Williams, 1974)  indicate that Beech largely arrived at that location just prior to the Hypsithermal (main prairie period of hot, dry weather with climate here more like Oklahoma or Nebraska) with greater frequency than currently, then radically dropped in numbers for about 2000 years (prairie & oak pollen skyrocketed at this time & remained very high until an all-time peak [at least in the 14,000-year coring], roughly 2500 years ago) until its greatest extent in the 14,000 years of the coring at 1500 years ago.  Since that time, it has declined, but has seen resurgence in recent years in the understory of nearby woods.  There is a bit of beech pollen for a few hundred years centered around 9000 years ago, when pine pollen had radically diminished.

There is also a tiny pulse of beech pollen around 13,000 years ago that was found for about 300 years with a little spike in hornbeam, elm & pine pollen in the set (with LOTS of spruce pollen & a bit of fir [fir pollen peaked around 10,500 years ago in the data set]).

It is interesting that other than that 9000 year old small stretch of minute amounts of beech pollen, that no beech was found on the site or nearby for another 2500 years after glacial ice recedence, but ash, elm, hornbeam & at least some oak pollen had been on site since the very tail end of the glacial ice.

Beech nuts are very oily, fatty & high in calories, making it an important food source for wildlife.  An interesting, triangular nut, beech oil can be extracted from it & can be used in a lantern to burn.  The triangular nuts are enclosed in a spiny, bur-like husk on the trees.

Beech is easy to spot in the forest in winter.  Young floor & understory beeches retain their leaves through the winter.  Highly sensitive to wind & ripping, the papery, thin leaves are tan/peach colored to rust color when retained on the trees.

3 Responses to “Native Tree of the Week: American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)”

  1. Theresa says:

    I liked reading what you wrote about the beech tree. Interesting. We live in a log cabin, built after the civil war, that is made of beech tree logs. It’s a beautiful and very hard wood. I read your weather blog frequently. You are definitely my “go to” weather person! Thanks, Chad!

  2. Ken says:

    Ah, one of my favorite trees! Thank you, Chad! I didn’t know how particular they were to their surroundings. We have a few beauties deep in the woods on the property but they are so few and far between. Had always dreamed of having one planted up near the house. But since the house literally is in the middle of a cornfield, I’m guessing that won’t work too well based on your explanation of their preferences for growing conditions. Well, I will cherish them where I see them!

  3. Keith says:

    The pic of carvings is sadly telling.
    Shades and Turkey Run are full of majestic, old Beech trees scarred by decades of lovers and vandals.

Leave a Reply