A Winter Woodland Tree

by Andrea Laine
There’s a tree in my Durham County backyard that I hardly notice, except come winter when it’s hard to miss. This native tree is the American beech (Fagus grandifolia). It is widespread across the hardwood forests of eastern North America

backyard beech 2

What makes this deciduous tree so noticeable in February? The presence of leaves. The leaves of younger specimens turn color in autumn and remain on the tree through winter. Papery thin and light bronze, the leaves stand out so well on an overcast day that they seem backlit. When the wind blows the foliage shimmers like a wind chime.


Slow-growing and long-lived, a beech’s grandeur will be enjoyed by generations to come. Of note, “Thin bark and shallow roots make beech trees extremely vulnerable to fire damage. (Spira 2011). Fire suppression over the past century has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of American beech trees.”

Smooth, light gray bark helps distinguish mature American beech from neighboring oak and hickory trees in the forest.
Smooth, light gray bark helps distinguish mature American beech from neighboring oak and hickory trees in the forest.

Here are additional identifying features of the statuesque American beech.
Physical Attributes:

  • Graceful, upright oval shape; Provides dense shade.
  • Generally 50 to 80 feet high at maturity; may reach 120 feet. Canopy of mature tree may spread 40 to 60 feet wide.
  • Simple leaves alternately arranged; ovate shape with an acute tip; margins are serrated. Leaves are silvery green in spring, dark green in summer.
  • Sharply pointed buds.
  • Monecious: separate male and female flowers on same tree. Flowers March to April.
  • Fruit is a two- or three-winged nut inside a spiny husk. Fruits September to October. Blue jays cache the nuts and disperse the seeds.


Environmental Conditions:

  • Moist, well-drained soil with a pH of 5 to 6.5.
  • Sun to partial shade. Will tolerate shade.
  • Hardiness zones 3 – 9.

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow
to keep an appointment with a beech-tree,
or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”
Henry David Thoreau, 1817 – 1862

Professional photo credits

American Beech leaves in winter. Credit: Jim Clark Photography. Retrieved on February 16, 2016 from https://jimclarkphoto.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/american-beech-tree-leaves-04012013
American Beech bark. Retrieved on February 16, 2016 from http://blog.growingwithscience.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/beech-bark.jpg
Opened fruit of American beech showing two nuts. Credit: NM Zitani. Retrieved February 16, 2016 from http://www.biodiversitygardening.com/american-beech.html

Additional Images



Dirr, M.A. (1998). The Manual of woody landscape plants. Stipes Publishing

Spira, T.P. (2011). Wildflowers & plant communities of the southern Appalachian mountains & Piedmont. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.