UT Gardens December 2015 Plant of the Month: American Beech

Now that the weather has changed, you can see the American beech from great distances through the forest with its smooth-flat grey bark and remnants of summer foliage. Photo of fall foliage from an American beech by A. Pulte, courtesy UTIA.
Now that the weather has changed, you can see the American beech from great distances through the forest with its smooth-flat grey bark and remnants of summer foliage. Photo of fall foliage from an American beech by A. Pulte, courtesy UTIA.

Submitted by Andy Pulte, University of Tennessee Department of Plant Sciences

It’s not often a deciduous tree is chosen as a plant of the month during winter. However, as December dawns, one of the true climactic tree species of our Eastern forests takes center stage: American Beech (Fagus grandifolia). The darkness of the summer forest has now given way, and light filters through bare stems. From great distances you can see the American beech through the forest with its smooth-flat grey bark and wasted remnants of summer foliage. By all accounts, this is a joy-filled encounter when walking through the woods.

Pre-settlement, the Eastern United States was filled with giant trees and the American beech was one of the biggest. Some 300 years later, most of those trees are gone. I suspect that the first Europeans, having traveled from a nearly deforested continent would have stood, mouth agape at the sight of a beech rising over 100 feet high and just as wide. It was quickly found by settlers that if beeches were located, good soil must be present. I’m sure many great trees were felled in the name of the plow and progress.

As age sets in, a beech with a wide character will stretch its lower limbs out and then downward often touching the ground and setting roots where they touch. Additionally, root-suckers can form into fine specimen trees over time. I’ve been lucky on a few occasions to stumble on a concentric circle of beeches created from the secondary growth of a mother tree. It’s good to pause and think about the time it would have taken for this to happen – particularly if there is no longer a trace of the central-hub tree.

The beech with its smooth bark has been known throughout history as a young man’s tablet. If a pocketknife was handy, and a big enough beech was present, it was often scarred with exploits of love or huntsmanship. Most famous for this is Daniel Boone who allegedly commemorated successful bear hunts with such carvings. 

In the home landscape a beech is rather difficult to transplant and has a reputation of not thriving in the urban environment.  They prefer rich, well-drained soil in either sun or partial shade.  Collecting seeds and directly sowing them outdoors, or transplanting very small seedlings may give the best chance to those wishing to have a beech in their landscape.  However, perhaps it is best to protect the areas where native beeches grow to insure the next generation can enjoy their beauty.

You can find American beech throughout the region. There is a nice specimen in the Native American Interpretive Garden on the UT Institute of Agriculture campus in Knoxville. At the UT Gardens, Jackson, there is one just northwest of the main parking lot near the oak tree collection.


Andrew Pulte is a public horticulture specialist in the University of Tennessee Department of Plant Sciences. He works closely with the staff of the UT Gardens. The gardens includes plant collections located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville. Designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, the collections are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The gardens’ mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs and research trials. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information see the Gardens website: 
http://utgardens.tennessee.edu.

About Brad Jones

Brad is the Owner/Operator of BBB TV 12, and has been with the company since August of 1996. Brad is a 1987 graduate of Coalfield High School and a 1995 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Communications. He won the 1995 broadcast production student of the year award. Brad worked at Shop at Home, Inc. a home shopping network that was located in Knoxville, TN from 1993 - 1995 and then at Via TV (RSTV, Inc.) from 1995 - 1996. After some freelance work in Nashville, Brad joined the BBB Communications staff in August of 1996. A short stint at WVLT TV as a news photographer was in 2001, but he continued to work at BBB TV as well. Brad is married to Nicole Jenkins Jones, a 1990 graduate of Oak Ridge High School, who works at Oak Ridge Gastroenterology and Associates in Oak Ridge. They have 3 kids, Trevor Bogard, 27, Chandler 22, and Naomi 13. On December 12, 2013 they welcomed their first grandchild, Carter Ryan Bogard. Brad is also the assistant boys basketball coach at Coalfield High School for the past 11 years. In 2013-14 the Yellow Jackets won their first district title since 1991 and just the 4th in school history.

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