Plants - Trees and Shrubs

The majestic and graceful beech tree

Trevor Cole
Photography by
Ernst Kucklich

Bring grandeur to your humble gardens with a beech tree.

Seedlings of a weeping beech (F. s. forma pendula) will most likely have a weeping growth habit, but the branches may hang straight, grow downward from the trunk at an angle or grow horizontally at first, then turn downward. If selecting a weeping beech for a specific location, examine the branch structure carefully before deciding, or you may end up with a tree too wide for your site. The purple-leafed, weeping form F. s. ‘Purpurea Pendula', with arching branches, makes for a short but wide tree, about three metres tall and across.

Although many of the named forms are suitable only for large, open spaces, a few of the smaller ones can be grown in the average garden. F. s. ‘Dawyck' (discovered in 1860 growing in the forests near the Scottish estate of Dawyck, in Peeblesshire) is a pyramidal form that reaches about 24 metres high and about three metres wide, but gains only about three metres in height over a 10-year period. ‘Dawyck Gold' is a similar upright variety with yellow leaves in spring that turn to green in summer then back to gold in fall. ‘Dawyck Purple' is also upright but has deep purple foliage all summer long. Its shoot tips turn inward, giving it a slightly more narrow profile than the others. These last two were introduced in 1973, so it's too soon to know their ultimate sizes. Another recent column-shaped introduction (1975) is ‘Purple Fountain', which is a lighter purple than ‘Dawyck Purple' with somewhat pendulous side branches. It's hardy to Zone 5b.

The three most readily available cultivars of copper beech are F. s. ‘Atropunicea', ‘Riversii' and F. s. forma purpurea. Some authorities consider the first two to be the same species, but the plants I have seen under these names are different: ‘Atropunicea' being cone-shaped, about half as wide as tall, and f. purpurea being a mounded form, almost as wide as high. ‘Riversii' has a broad crown and slightly pendulous branches, and is likely the darkest selection of all, with the leaves being almost black when they open and fading to a dark greenish purple in the summer.

Two final varieties with coloured foliage are F. s. ‘Purpurea Tricolor'-commonly listed as ‘Tricolor' or ‘Roseomarginata'-and F. s. ‘Zlatia'. The former has leaves that are carmine when they first open, becoming pale purple with an irregular pink and white border at maturity. A smaller tree, to about 10 metres high, with a more open crown, it needs midday shade in regions with hot summers to prevent leaf scorch. ‘Zlatia' has an almost oval shape with new foliage of a golden yellow that fades to a pale green in summer. It is one parent of ‘Dawyck Gold'.

A couple of trees commonly grown in Canada are associated with beeches because of a similarity in bark and the way the foliage hangs on into winter but, in fact, they are not even in the same plant family, even though their common names suggest otherwise.

The European hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, is also known as hornbeech and yoke elm. Beam is Old English for “tree,” and this species has wood as hard as a horn. Another explanation for the common name is that it was used to make yokes attached to the horns of oxen. The most widely grown variety is the pyramidal hornbeam, C. b. ‘Fastigiata' (syn. ‘Pyramidalis'), which forms a narrow column while young, widening to an oval shape with age, reaching 12 metres high by six metres wide. This is a tough, Zone 4 tree that will grow in most soil types, provided the soil is well drained. It will take light shade and is tolerant of difficult conditions, such as parking lots and containers. It can also be used for hedging, giving a beech-like hedge where the European beech is not hardy.

Our native American hornbeam, C. caroliniana, also has a number of common names, including blue beech (because of the similarity of the bark) and ironwood (because of its hardness). Slightly hardier than the European hornbeam (Zone 3b), it grows best in moist, slightly acidic soils, but will survive in drier ones. In nature it's normally found as an understory tree in woods, so it grows well in shade. It can reach 10 metres or more in height and as much in width. The foliage is bright green in spring, turning dark in summer, then yellow, orange and scarlet in fall.

Both kinds of hornbeam are fairly slow-growing, gaining three to four metres in height over a 10-year period.

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