Beech grotesquerie

multiple selves

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.

neurotic 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.

beech holes

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.

the ring tree

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.

ring tree closeup

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.

Watch the full slideshow (13 photos in all) or browse the set (easier for people with slow connections).


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.

27 Replies to “Beech grotesquerie”

  1. i enjoyed your peregrinations through the beeches but feel so terribly sad to think that they are endangered. the tree from which we get the word book. also the sacred tree of denmark. and indeed they are weirdly fascinating.

  2. Thanks for the kind comments. Like the American chestnut, the American beech should ultimately survive and, in a few centuries’ time, evolve resistance to the beech scale. So what is being lost here is not so much a species per se but its major ecological services — and the greater part of its beauty and physical presence. There will still be beech sprouts and saplings, so we’ll still get to enjoy that wonderfully pure, light green of the new leaves in spring and the translucent gold in autumn. Once in a while, we’ll even see small numbers of beech nuts.

  3. We’ve never lived where beeches grew naturally, Dave – if I’ve ever seen one it was in a collection at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. The photos are fascinating.

    Thanks for the “self-grafting” term… one of our crepe myrtles has formed a bow, too.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    1. Thanks. Yeah, Donald Culrose Peattie’s magisterial A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America was my source for that factoid, which I verified with the Online Etymology dictionary. Pretty cool, eh?

  4. I love beech.

    We don’t have them here, but they, next to sugar maple, were the common hardwood in the forests in Ontario, where I was a kid. I hugged them. I feel the bark in your pictures.

    1. Visitors from beechless parts of the world often remark upon the beeches in the hollow. Even though the similar European beech is widely planted as an ornamental, beeches in a close-canopy forest have such a different shape that I think a lot of people fail to recognize them.

    1. I think it’s a misprint for “birch family.” Notice there’s another Beech Family farther down the page, Fagaceae, which includes oaks and chestnuts as well as beech proper (genus Fagus).

  5. Thanks Dave, I did see that just after I sent it to you. The Fagaceae are listed as oaks, the Garry Oak I know well and it’s endangered. Geesh, this is confusing. I’d swear I’ve seen trees that have bark like your beeches but I don’t thinks it’s the Garry Oak.

  6. As you know Japan has all kinds of beech, some of them truly enormous. Japanese forests are dominated mainly by beech, cedar, cypress, and larch, so you have these swaths of characteristic shades of green in certain areas. THe Kanto Plain, being warm and protected from the Japan Sea snows, used to be filled with a huge beech forest that has all but disappeared. And the community woods (satoyama) that once were such an important part of the culture have largely grown into tangled messes where nothing but brambles and grass-bamboo (sasa) can grow.

    1. I’d forgotten that, Miguel. And I didn’t know anything about the fate of Japanese village commons. So thanks for a very informative comment.

    1. Oh yes, all the time. (Just to clarify: the species itself isn’t threatened, I don’t think, but its ecosystem functions definitely are.)

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