An elephant leg-like trunk supports a massive branching system on the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia), reaching mature heights of 50 to 70 feet tall and 40 to 60 feet wide. Appropriate to grow in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 4b through 9a, it does not like root disturbance and is thus best planted when young and allowed to grow permanently in the same location. Mulch the root zone to keep the soil moist and cool and to nourish the many surface roots.
The American beech's natural growing range extends from New Brunswick and Ontario southward to Florida's panhandle. The westernmost reach of the range is around Lake Michigan in the north and eastern Texas in the south.
Developing an impressive trunk holding an elegant, spreading matrix of branches, American beech's bark is a smooth, silvery gray. In spring the leaves emerge a glossy light green and when about one-third grown, the male and female catkin flowers occur separately on twig tips. The female flowers that are pollinated in the wind develop into small, burred nutlets that ripen in early autumn. Each nutlet carries two, rarely three seeds. Also in autumn the leaves turn to shades of golden yellow that deepen to bronze or orange before dropping. Some leaves persist well into midwinter on lower, wind-protected branches.
Taxonomists today regard American beech as the only species of Fagus native to North America. Previously, slightly different populations of trees in the southeast were considered natural varieties, one called the southern or Carolina beech (Fagus grandifolia var. caroliniana) and one from the mountains of Mexico (Fagus grandifolia var. mexicana), the Mexican beech. Today, they are all regarded as American beech genetically, although they may retain their common names in their respective regions of the continent, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
American beech trees grow their best in a moist, acidic soil that is rich in organic matter. Across its natural range, Dr. Michael Dirr notes it is remarkably tolerant of many growing conditions, including dry or seasonally wet soils and those that are neutral to slightly alkaline in pH. For even growth, plant a beech tree in a spot where it receives at least 8 hours of direct sun daily. It also grows in the shade of taller trees, too, which mimics its habitat in the woodlands of eastern North America.
The tree tends to retain its lowest branches, creating sweeping branches that often touch the ground--making it problematic as a lawn tree or tree along a boulevard. They may root and create suckering shoots when they are in contact with the soil. Many fungal diseases can inflict harm to the tree, especially in overly wet soils or when there is bark damage to the trunk and root flare. Powdery mildew, aphids, canker and beech bark disease are but a few issues. The bark itself is rather thin and cannot tolerate wildfire.
The American beech tree is a handsome lawn specimen tree for a spacious landscape. In the natural setting, many wildlife animals eat the nutlets for food. Beech wood is used for flooring, furniture, turned products, veneer, plywood, railroad ties, baskets, pulp, charcoal and rough lumber. It makes a terrific fuelwood because of its high density and good burning qualities. Creosote is made from the wood, too.