This photo not only illustrates the massive crops of beechnuts but the leaves and their structures as well.

The American Beech tree is the only native beech tree in Michigan other than the smaller blue beech, which is actually a member of the birch tree family. Beech trees are common to most areas of the Lower Peninsula, as well as several Counties in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. Like our oaks, it is a member of the Fagaceae family but is in a different genus. It goes by the species name of Fagus grandifolia Ehrh.

Beech trees are one of the easiest trees to recognize, as well as being one of the most favorite native Michigan trees for producing wildlife food. We have numerous beech trees growing on both of our farms in Southern Michigan, and during the years of abundant beechnut production, it looks like a group of swine had rooted all over our woodlot’s floor for several months. We have witnessed deer, turkeys, squirrels and other wildlife pawing, digging and searching for the edible fruits mixed in with the fallen leaves!

During our recent timber sales, it seemed no one wanted the nice, straight, clear beech trees, and if they would take them, the offer was less than firewood value. Therefore, we have a lot of large, stand-alone beech trees remaining throughout our woodlots. This causes us concern as mixed in with our oaks and hard maples are the remnants of about ten huge beech trees that survived the last logging operation over fifty years ago. These trees, when left in the open after logging the areas around them, allow the development of lower, horizontal limbs on their once clear trunks and enable rapid growth, with little nearby competition for nutrients and moisture. They now have wide, thick crowns with a canopy that shades out most plant growth beneath them, as well as becoming hollow.

Some have fallen over, and it is common for others to drop their dead limbs. I would remove them for firewood if I didn’t have an abundance of tree tops from our timber sales to clean up! I worry that the tall, clear beech trees left behind by the loggers will now develop large, lateral limbs and shade out much of the forest floor. Their saving grace is the abundant nuts they produce for wildlife. However, I don’t think the older trees of any species produce fruit like those in their prime years.

On years of high beechnut production, as stated above, deer and turkeys spend most of their time searching for the fruit that ties them to woodlots throughout most of the winter! There are some years when a massive over-crop of beechnuts are produced that covers the forest floor. Yet, in some years even when large crops of nuts are produced, they have no content. The less time that turkeys leave their home area, the better chance they have of surviving the bad weather, roads and poachers. Therefore, I am torn between leaving the beech trees standing or removing most of them for firewood. I don’t want them to shade out the desired species like re-growth, maple, oak, cherry and other non-shade tolerant trees. We have already removed the beech and hickory from close proximity to our white oaks.

The young beech and bitternut hickory trees are very shade tolerant and can survive well in the understory of the woodlot. These young beech trees have an abundance of leaves that turn golden yellow in the fall and are cold-tolerant, persisting on the trees well into the winter months. Branches cut from these smaller, densely leaved trees, make excellent cover for camouflaging tent blinds and other deer stand structures as these branches retain their leaves long after being cut. However, it seems that the shade effects on the nut-producing beech trees has been an inhibitor of their own seed production throughout our woodlots. An example of shade intolerance occurs near a clearing used for a parking lot along the edge of the woodlot. A fairly large beech tree sits close to the woodlot edge, mostly in the shade of larger, taller trees. This tree exhibits one long, large limb that hangs laterally out into our parking lot and it absorbs direct sunlight until at least 2:00 PM. Almost yearly, this lone branch is loaded with beechnuts while the rest of the shaded tree has not produced any.

The leaves of beech trees are usually 3 to 5 inches long and about half as wide. They are ovate with about a 3/8 inch long, narrow apex, somewhat resembling the American elm. They are rounded at the base where the leaf joins the real short petiole and are the widest in the lower half, up to the middle. Then the margin tapers from this widest section directly to the leaf apex. The leaves are a dark green on the surface with a lighter green on the underside. They are thick and leathery to touch. Their margins are finely serrated the entire length with very shallow teeth that point forward. The lateral veins are uniformly parallel and also point forward at an angle of about 45 degrees from the midrib, terminating in the margin serrations. These lateral veins appear sunken, causing the material between them to look arched, giving the leaf a rough appearing condition. The leaves occur alternately on the twigs. New growth twigs originate from about an inch-long terminal, winter bud that often has the appearance of a mini cigar.

The reproduction system is monoecious similar to the white oaks. The flowers appear with the leaves in late April to mid-May. The male staminate flowers originate within a one-inch, round, ball-like structure hanging from a long, slender, hairy peduncle. The female pistillate flowers occur on the twigs at the base of a leaf where a short peduncle forms. At the end of this stem a spiny burr forms containing two, three-sided nuts. The burr is four-parted and opens at maturity, allowing the nuts to drop. However, the burr often persists until the next crop develops and beyond. These nuts are sweet, and in productive years they draw deer and turkeys like a magnet draws metal objects. Beechnuts are small in size, allowing them to be consumed by a wider range of animals, such as pheasants, grouse and bluejays. They often provide wildlife food throughout the winter.

The trunks of beech trees can grow to a diameter of two to three feet and reach a height of over eighty feet but are slow-growing. The beech is the only tree we will cover whose trunk doesn’t change much in appearance by aging. They do retain some shallow marks from dying branches, along with some small horizontal lines. The tree is recognizable, even from a distance, by its sky-blue or ash-grey bark, which changes very little by age. The bark and sapwood is very thin, causing the tree to be very susceptible to fire damage. Beech trees can easily be defaced by persons who carve their initials and leave other marks on the thin bark; persisting for life! Beech trees tend to become hollow with age, which relegates them to firewood value.

For years during our tenure in the apple orchard business, we used several hundred crates that were made from native beech trees. They had to be cut and nailed while green to prevent splitting during this process. They were strong and lasted for years, and I still use a number of them around the farm. The wood must be used for indoor projects as it can succumb quickly to high moisture conditions. Don’t overlook the value of birch trees in your landscape plans or as an attractant for wildlife, even if it occurs in your backyard. Keep planting trees, their enjoyment just might grow on you!