The American beech grows in New England, down through the Mid-Atlantic states into the Florida Panhandle. This hardwood tree, which makes a good ornamental for open areas, also occurs into eastern Texas, southeast Missouri and the upper Midwest. The American beech stands out among the surrounding trees, as one of its aspects is usually much different than the species with which it grows.
Size and Form
American beech can grow to average heights between 60 and 80 feet, but taller specimens are possible, with some well over 100 feet high. The American beech has a spreading crown, as wide as 80 feet in some cases. The lower branches often grow horizontal to the ground, with many drooping downwards. Many of the lower branches will wind up growing in such a manner that they come into contact with the ground around the tree.
The leaves of the beech are simple, with from 11 to 15 pairs of veins running off the central vein. Beech leaves are between 2 1/2 and 5 inches long, as wide as 3 inches and dark green on the upper surface. The lower surface is lighter and the leaves change to yellow-brown to greenish-brown once cooler weather in fall arrives. Beech leaves often remain on the limbs in the winter, with the dead foliage that occurs closest to the main trunk sometimes still on the tree at the end of winter/beginning of spring. On immature beeches, the dead leaves cover the branches all winter.
The most recognizable attribute of American beech trees is its bark. The thin gray bark is smooth to the touch, unlike the furrowed and ridged bark of many tree species within the beech tree's range. The bark remains smooth, even as the tree ages. This is actually a hindrance to the appearance of the beech in many instances, as people will deface the beech with initials and other graffiti. The smooth bark then preserves these writings indefinitely.
All beeches will produce the nuts called beechnuts, because the trees possess male and female flowers. The nuts are inside what the Ohio Department of Natural Resources site describes as a "prickly husk." The three-angled nuts are visible when the husks split into four parts by the end of summer or autumn's start. Beechnuts are 5/8 inch long. Squirrels, chipmunks, opossums, deer and even black bear will go under a beech tree in fall, intent on consuming these nuts.
The ground that is beneath an American beech tree will more than likely be bare, even when the beech grows out in an open area, containing only the fallen leaves from the beech. Two factors contribute to this. One is the high density of the leaves above, which block any sunlight from reaching the immediate area under the tree, preventing the growth of plants. The other is that beech trees normally have a very shallow system of roots, with the roots often just under and sometimes above the ground.