Fagus sylvatica is a magnificent tree. European beech is native from the southern parts of Sweden and Norway to Spain, Italy, Greece and northeast Turkey and Ukraine. It is a common tree in the “old world” where it is often found in association with oaks, European fir and Norway spruce. Close relatives in the beech family (Fagaceae) include chestnuts (Castanea) and oaks (Quercus). European beech is a symbol of wisdom.
At The Holden Arboretum there are 42 specimens of European Beech including 18 cultivars. The largest is a purple beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’) measuring 78’ tall by 52’ wide that was planted in 1958 in the Nut Tree Collection at Baldwin Acres. A purple beech named ‘Swat Magret’ in the crabapple collection north of the Corning Visitor Center is a selection from a German nursery that retains its leaf color better through the summer than the aforementioned cultivar. This 20’ x 17’ tree was planted on May 7, 2002 as a 3” caliper balled and burlapped specimen.
In the Display Garden west of the lily pool is a weeping beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’) that has become a destination for children who often venture under its canopy that extends 19’ x 35’. The tree was planted on Nov. 14, 1983 and has an irregular outline with branches going every which way in addition to branches that cascade down.
A 24’ x 24’ specimen of fernleaf beech (Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’) is on the southeast side of Heath Pond in the Helen S. Layer Rhododendron Garden. It was planted on May 25, 1994 and now displays a rounded outline with closely spaced horizontal branches with upswept ends. The branches become more ascending toward the top of the crown. At Lantern Court there is a beautiful fernleaf beech east of the entry drive planted in the early 1930’s that measures about 70’ x 60’.
Along the entry drive north of the gate house is an 8’ tall European beech planted in 2009 that is a seedling originating from the Carpathian Mountains of the Ukraine. Like most seedling beech, although its leaves lose their chlorophyll in fall, a significant number of those leaves are not shed until spring.
The extensive shallow and intermediate roots of European beech combined with the deep shade cast by the tree in full leaf allows little opportunity for plants to grow under its canopy. However Pachysandra and hellebores have been successfully grown beneath them. The handsome foliage, growth habit and the smooth grey bark are the primary ornamental features of European beech. Fall foliage is in shades of brown and greenish-yellow from late October through mid-November. The inconspicuous wind-pollinated flowers are borne in early to mid-May. Triangular nuts in small burs are produced irregularly and seldom if ever in abundance on trees that usually mature at 30-50 years of age. Grafted cultivars bear beech nuts sooner but no more abundantly.
There is no finer specimen or shade tree for Northeast Ohio landscapes than a European beech. While American beech (Fagus grandifolia) graces our woodlands, European beech is a more practical tree for planting in a lawn or garden as it does not sucker profusely from the roots. In the landscape, beeches can be infested by scale insects that lead to infection by Nectria canker, but the scale insects can be treated effectively during their “crawler” stage in late summer.
During inventory of European beech at Holden, no matter the imperfections a particular specimen might have had, a distinguished board member and volunteer was so enamored with these trees that he proclaimed them all “excellent.” His eyes were so lit up with joy and admiration, I had to agree.