With smooth silver-gray bark and trunks that look like aged dinosaur legs, the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) makes a stately, rounded shade tree in expansive landscape settings such as a lawn or meadow. It can reach a mature age of 300 years. Grow this large plant in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 9.
The American beech is the only beech native to North America, once existing from coast to coast. The native range today for this species extends from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, southward to Arkansas' Ozarks and east Texas and the along the Gulf Coast to South Carolina.
A deciduous tree, the American beech attains an upright, rounded habit with horizontal to upward-angled branches. It matures to 50 to 70 feet in height with an overall spread of 40 to 60 feet. In spring, the tapered oval leaves emerge, becoming deep glossy green with a waxy smooth texture. The leaf undersides bear a pale green color. As the leaves emerge, separate male and female flowers develop on twigs; only the female flowers after wind-pollination forms fruits, called "beech nuts." They are brown, triangular and held in a spiny brown husk, ripening in early autumn. The foliage attains yellow, gold and golden tan hues before dropping away. Branches are low-reaching and spreading when light is bright; in shady woodland settings the lowest limbs abort and drop off. Large trees tend to sprout little suckering shoots from their roots at the edge of the canopy, creating a thicket of new tree saplings.
Grow American beech in a moist, well-drained acidic soil that contains lots of organic matter for best growth. It is quite tolerant of both moist and dry, even slightly alkaline soils, as noted by its varying habitats. It prospers in full sun exposures, more than 10 hours of sun daily, as well as in partially shaded woodland settings, where only three to five hours of shifting sunlight reaches the leaves across the day. The root system is extensive and relatively shallow and in garden situations benefits from a thick, constant layer of organic mulch to keep the soil cool and moist. The mulch also diminishes any soil compaction from foot traffic, lawn mowers or vehicles.
A large variety of birds and mammals, including mice, squirrels, chipmunks, black bear, deer, foxes, ruffed grouse, ducks, and bluejays eat the beech nuts, also called mast.
There are many uses for beech wood. It has traditionally been a favorite material for flooring, furniture, turned products like posts and banisters, charcoal and rough lumber. More modern uses include production of veneer, plywood, railroad ties, baskets and pulp. It is especially favored for firewood because of its high density and good burning qualities. Creosote, which has traditionally been used to treat a number of animal and human disorders, is also made from beech wood.