The smoothness of their bark makes beech trees, both American and European, among the sexiest and also the most grotesque of trees. Branch scars and other markings that would virtually disappear on trees with more bark-like bark are hard to miss on a beech.
Some beech trees look downright neurotic. But who can blame them? The great beech forests of North America are gone, clearcut two centuries ago to make way for farms, to such an extant that most people who spend anytime outdoors assume that beeches actually prefer the mountainsides and ravines in which they’ve made their last stand. The passenger pigeon, which once visited beech forests the way hurricanes visit Florida, has been extinct for a hundred years. And now a non-native scale insect is helping beech bark disease decimate the remnant stands, though thankfully it hasn’t appeared in Plummer’s Hollow just yet.
It was the trees’ abundant mast that accounted for their popularity with passenger pigeons, of course, and beechnuts still feed many species today. But the grotesqueness of beech trees has wildlife value, too: the frequent hollows in older trees can provide den sites for a wide variety of birds and mammals. Many trees rot out as they age, but beeches seem to get started on it early.
Nor does the grotesquerie end with weird, vaguely human scars and orifices. The self-grafting ability of beech limbs can produce some bizarre effects, as in the above specimen, which grows right next to the Plummer’s Hollow Road.
I am kind of at a loss to explain how this happened… or why it took me so many years to notice it. I don’t know how many more years we’ll have canopy-height beeches in the hollow — not too far north of here, all the big beeches are dead — so I figure I’d better start paying more attention to them now.
Beech bark disease won’t wipe them out completely, but it will probably kill almost all the mature beeches and keep new root sprouts from getting very big, just as the chestnut blight has done for American chestnuts. The grotesquerie will be all but lost, and the tree from which the word “book” is derived may become little more than an asterisk and a footnote.
Don’t forget to submit tree-related blog posts to the Festival of the Trees. The deadline for the next edition, at The Voltage Gate, is Friday, February 26. See the call for submissions for details on how to participate.