Richly colored purple to coppery green foliage sets copper beech trees apart from the common European beech (Fagus sylvatica). A natural variable form, copper beeches often carry a botanical descriptor or form name of "purpurea." Grow them in moist, fertile, well-draining soils rich in organic matter in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 5 through 7, perhaps into zone 4 if sheltered from brutally cold, drying winter winds.
The European beech is native to the moist, acidic woodlands of central Europe eastward to the Caucasus. There are naturally occurring forms of this species according to the "A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants." including forma purpurea, which is commonly known as the copper beech. Some people casually consider the copper beech a horticultural variety or cultivar, which is misleading. Many selections of copper beech have been assigned variety names and posses more ornate foliage, deeper leaf colorations or growth habits---all mutations from the natural purpurea form of European beech.
In its wild form, the copper beech slowly grows with a muscular, gray trunk covered in thin but smooth bark. The trunk looks like a massive dinosaur or elephant leg that holds many spreading branches, some that droop to the soil and take root. It reaches a mature size of about 80 feet with width of 50 feet. Copper beech foliage possesses a purplish tint and mature color to it, absent in the common European beech tree. In autumn, copper beech leaves attain a metallic coppery sheen with orange-red tones overcasting the purple color.
Over the years, horticulturists selected more ornately shaped or leaved mutations or seed-grown variations of the wild copper beech. Cultivars with extremely purple to near-black leaves derived from copper beeches; examples include Riversii and Dawyck Purple that also grows with a more column-like shape. A weeping variety is Purpurea Pendula that grows only 10 to 15 feet tall. The three-color variegated leaf cultivar Purpurea Tricolor also is sold under the names Roseomarginata or Tricolor. Deeply cut, serrated leaves occur on Rohansii, while Spaethiana bears purple leaves with contrasting, lighter colored veins.
European copper beech trees make impressive shade trees for spacious lawns or grown in linear rows to make tall hedgerows. Beech trees tolerate branch tip shearing well, allowing them to be clipped into formal, box-like allees. Cultivars that do not have the same mature size or habit as the wild form of copper beech make handsome individual accent trees or shrub-like specimens if dwarfed.
European beech trees in general have relatively shallow but expansive root systems. They do not tolerate extended periods of drought well, and soil compaction over roots can lead to growth retardation. Old specimens eventually decline and may succumb to fungal canker, butt and root rots. Often very old trees reveal hollow trunks when they topple. Also, do not plant copper beeches where soils are soggy or seasonally flood.