Plants - Trees and Shrubs

The majestic and graceful beech tree

By
Trevor Cole
Photography by
Ernst Kucklich

Bring grandeur to your humble gardens with a beech tree.

Most European beeches have nearly oval leaves with a smooth margin, but there are several beeches with differently shaped leaves. The fern-leafed beech, F. s. ‘Aspleniifolia' (Zone 5b), for instance, has leaves that are deeply divided, sometimes becoming almost linear, that turn golden brown in fall. Similar is F. s. forma laciniata, but its leaves are not as deeply serrated.

At the other end of the scale is F. s. ‘Rotundifolia'. Slender and upright when young, it forms a low, wide tree with spreading branches, reaching about 20 metres by 15 metres. The small, round leaves are closely set on the branches, usually in pairs.

It's not surprising that there's also a beech with oak-like leaves, given beeches and oaks are in the same family, Fagaceae. F. s. ‘Rohanii', first discovered on the estate of Prince Camille de Rohan in Bohemia in 1888, has brownish purple leaves, with rounded lobes that are widest toward the base. ‘Rohanii' has been used to produce two new hybrids, F. s. ‘Rohan Gold', with yellow leaves, and F. s. ‘Rohan Obelisk', a narrow, purple-leafed form; each one has lobed-shaped foliage.

European beech is a wonderful hedging plant, as demonstrated in many English gardens. Although it doesn't make an instant hedge (which may be allowed to grow to 15 metres or be kept as low as 1.2 metres), it will last for years and is worth the effort. Install young plants in spring about 1.2 metres apart and leave them to become established for one year. Then, cut back to about 15 centimetres above the soil early in the second spring. This will force several shoots to grow from the base, giving a denser hedge. Trim three times a year for the next few years to encourage side branches; thereafter, an annual pruning in midsummer should suffice.

Both the American and European beeches are highly disease- and pest-resistant but may suffer some dieback if planted close to the limits of their hardiness. Occasionally, small galls may form on the leaves, caused by a tiny midge laying eggs beneath the leaf surface, but these are not serious and rarely develop enough to warrant spraying; cleaning up the fallen leaves helps keep them from becoming a major problem. There is also beech scale, an insect that attacks beech, and beech bark disease, caused by a fungus that invades the resulting damage, but those are rare unless you live near a forested area containing native beech trees. If necessary, control the scale with sprays of lime sulfur while the tree is dormant.

Closely related but from the other side of the equator is the southern beech, Nothofagus. Only one of the 35 species seems to be available in Canada: the Antarctic beech, N. antarctica. Not as hardy as its name sounds, it grows to Zone 7, reaching about 20 metres high by two metres wide. Its small, crinkled leaves turn yellow in fall. Unlike the true beech, this one is very tolerant of salt and wind, making it a good choice for coastal plantings in warmer zones.

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