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Nut Trees - The Beech

( Originally Published 1927 )

The American Beech

Fagus Americanus, Sweet.

One of the most widely distributed trees in our country, this is also one of the most useful and most beautiful in any forest. It is the sole representative of its genus in the Western Hemisphere. One species is a valuable timber tree in Europe. Three are natives of Asia. A genus near of kin includes the beech trees of the Southern Hemisphere, twelve species in all. There is closer resemblance, however, between our beeches and their next of kin, the chestnuts' and oaks.

From the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Texas, from New England to Wisconsin, beech trees grow; and where they grow they are very likely to form "pure forests," on the slopes of mountains and rich river bottoms. The largest specimens grow in the basin of the lower Ohio River, and on the warm slopes of the Alleghany Mountains.

Standing alone, with room for full development, the beech is a fine, symmetrical tree, with horizontal or slightly drooping branches, numerous, thickly set with slender, flexible twigs. The stout trunk supports a round or conical head of very dense foliage. One hundred and twenty feet is the maximum height, with a trunk diameter of three to four feet.

The older the trees, the greater the amount of red heart wood in proportion to the white sap-wood, next to the bark. Red and white beech wood are distinguished by lumbermen. Red beech makes superior floors, toolhandles, chairs, and the like, and there is no more perfect fuel than seasoned beech wood.

It is unreasonable to think that any but the blind could live where beech trees grow and not know these trees at a glance. The bark is close, unfurrowed, gray, often almost white, and marked with blotches, often nearly round of paler hue.

The branches are dark and smooth and the twigs polished to the long, pointed winter buds. Throughout, the tree is a model of elegant attire, both in color and texture of the investing bark.

In the growing season the leaves are the tree's chief at-traction. They are closely plaited, and covered with silvery down, when the bud scales are pushed off in the spring. In a day, the protective fuzz disappears, and the full-grown leaf is seen, thin, strongly feather-veined, uniforrnly green, saw-toothed. Summer shows the foliage mass almost as fresh, and autumn turns its green to pale gold. Still unblemished, it clings, often until the end of winter, lighting the woods with a ghostly glow, as the rain fades the color out. The silky texture is never quite lost.

The delicate flowers of the beech tree are rarely seen, they fade so soon; the stamen tassels drop off and the forming nuts, with their prickly burs, are more and more in evidence in the leaf angles near the ends of new shoots. With the first frost the burs open, the four walls part, re-leasing the two nuts, three-angled, like a grain of buckwheat.

The name of this grain was suggested by its resemblance in form to the beechnut, or "buck mast," sweet, nutritious food of so many dwellers in the forest. Buck mast was the food of man when he lived in caves and under the forest cover. We know that beechnuts have a rich, delicate flavor that offsets the disadvantages of their small size and the difficulty of opening their thin but leathery shells. All along the centuries European peoples have counted on this nut, and oil expressed from it, for their own food and the dried leaves for forage for their cattle in whiter.

The American pioneer turned his hogs into the beech woods to fatten on the beech-mast, and Thanksgiving turkeys were always finer if they competed with the wild turkey on the same fare.

Birds and lesser mammals do much to plant trees when they carry away, for immediate or future use, seeds that are not winged for flight. Beechnuts are light enough to profit, to some extent, by a high wind. And beech trees in their infancy do well under the shade of other trees. So each fruiting tree is the mother of many young ones. But the seedling trees are not so numerous and important as the sapling growth that rises from the roots of parent trees. By these alone, a few isolated beeches will manage to take possession of the ground around them and to clothe it with so dense a foliage screen that all young growth, except certain ferns and grasses, dies for lack of sun. Before we can realize what is going on, the tract is a pure forest of beech, rapidly enlarging on all sides by the same campaign of extension.

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