copper or purple beech, a tree worth waiting for
ALL TREES TEACH US PATIENCE, but a beech tree is the advanced master of the discipline. Fagus grandifolia, the American beech, grows in the woods around me, but when I came to this place 30ish years ago, I added a European beech (Fagus sylvatica), a copper-leaf one specifically, in the field high above the house. Slow as it may be, it has proven a fine companion in every season since, with an increasingly muscular trunk of elephant-hide bark, and oh, those leaves—great from first hint of unfurling to their moment on the ground, a puddle of delicious cinnamon.
In an instant-gratification world, I have come to really appreciate things you can’t have right now, and a grown-up beech tree—I’m partway there; its head is getting wider, its trunk more massive, its branches starting to reach downward—is worth the wait.
And in the last few years there has been a bonus: a heavy crop of beech nuts. When the first one came, littering the ground throughout the canopy and beyond, delighting the squirrels, I wondered why, “suddenly,” it was so productive, and then I read: a European beech, various sources report must be at least 30 years old to start producing a full crop of beechnuts. So my tree is right on schedule.
I say “I added” the tree, but that’s not quite true. Even at maybe 5 feet tall, burlap-covered rootball included, the young beech was far too heavy for me to haul uphill myself. Two neighbors helped, and I encircled its trunk with a tube of hardware cloth when we were done, and watered it well, and imagined it a giant someday. The great public gardens I’d grown up visiting near New York City all had giant old European beeches, the fancy of the men who’d made the grand estates that some of the properties originally were. I was envious.
I love the copper- or purple-leaf ones best, the ones in the group simply called called Purpurea, because their leaves begin orangey-copper (above, and below at crabapple time), then hold a deep plum-wine color all summer long before going fiery again in their last gasps.
Among the green-leaved versions, one of the real beauties is Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia,’ with fern-like, fine-textured foliage, and to be clear: A plain old European beech is nothing plain at all. The straight species is a fantastic tree, as is the American (though the native is harder to find in nurseries). Both have beautiful, pointed buds, and both make wildlife happy with their beechnuts. Each is a giant of maybe 50 feet tall (eventually possibly larger) and nearly as wide; do not fail to give them room, because in time they will gobble it up.
The European beech is hardy in Zones 4 or 5 to 7—no heat-lover this one—and the American species in 4-9 (sun or shade). The native is an astonishing tree in every month, with its silvery trunk, but never more so than in fall, when it is golden-brown and yellow. In winter it holds some of the faded ones.
All those years ago I–we–set my beech on axis from the south-facing windows of the house, not knowing consciously that decades later I’d sit facing it daily, writing, looking up from the screen or page perhaps a hundred times a day. So much of what we do unconsciously when we garden turns out to be the best of all our choices–don’t think too much, but try to let instinct seize your hand. And so many plants that ask a little extra of us turn out to be the most precious of all.