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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.

  1. Joe says:

    My parents house had a beautiful copper beech in front of their house. It was there long before we were and it was massive. It was always the last tree to drop it’s leaves, sometimes in January. Arborists were always visiting the tree and often bringing students. Everyone said it was the largest they ever saw by a long stretch. Sadly hurricane Sandy sent a huge limb crashing through the roof, nearly destroying the house. The tree was not able to be saved, but was estimated to be approximately 300 years old. The things that tree experienced dating back to the formation of our country!

    1. margaret says:

      Ouch, Joe…sorry to hear about what happened to the tree. I have seen some very old ones on Long Island, but don’t know if they were that old.

  2. Roger Durban says:

    Bruce ‘the Boss” Springsteen grew up in a home in Freehold, NJ. In the front yard are two copper beach trees planted by his Dad.

  3. Sharon says:

    My copper/purple beech is over 30 years old and has been producing spiny
    pods for perhaps four years now. They are incredibly painful if you step on them with bare feet. Is the tree bearing podsdue to its age or has another beech been planted in the neighbourhood? And yes, it’s beautiful.

    1. margaret says:

      Here’s what Yale University says about when/why our beeches produce nuts (inside those spiny cupules, as they are called:
      “Small quantities of nuts can be produced from around ten years of age but typically a heavy crop is only seen after 30 years of growth. Both flower and fruit production is particularly abundant after a hot, dry, and sunny summer the previous year. There is usually a bumper crop of beech mast every four or five years.”

  4. I have an wild American I transplanted to a house visible hillside, from my Western North Carolina creekside bank in 2006. It just sat and pouted, doing little for most most of that time. But the last couple of years seem to resigned itself to solitary sentinel duty on the sunny hayfield hill.

    I would be delighted to find a good one on the more coppery-than-purple side of color.

  5. Bill Shepherd says:

    Our copper beech is in the front yard of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, zone 5b. The tan coloured leaves from the fall stayed on all winter and slowly dropped from May 10-28 as the new buds pushed them away.
    We love the tree and the changing leaf colours that especially add to our drab late fall, winter and early spring.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Joyce. An example of where common names (of which there are often multiples) can be confusing. Missouri Botanical says that copper beech or purple beech can be common names for any of the European beeches (Fagus sylvatica) in what’s called the Atropurpurea Group (ones whose foliage is purple or bronze depending on the season). More on that here. So there are various cultivars of weeping beech (a green one, a purple one, a tricolor one as I recall), but the popular purple one is Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula.’

      1. Jorge Soriano says:

        So, I live in Northeastern Iowa and have plenty of space to plant several varieties of the beech, which I think I want to do, though what initially attracted me were the copper and purple ones.

        My question is this: I am 55. Obviously I would love to live long enough to see them fully grown, but what size can one expect they would be at say 10 years, if planted at about 6’ to 7’’?

        It’s not so much about whether I decide to plant these beech trees, it’s more a question to help me decide where I will plant them.

        Also, how big can you successfully plant these trees? It would be nice to get a couple in front of the house that have had a good start already.

        Thanks

        1. margaret says:

          Most references say 1 to 2 feet a year — but also that growth rate is “slow” when young (then slightly faster aka “medium” from middle age onward). So I think you can plan for a foot a year.

          Beeches can be moved quite large…if you want to pay big $$$. I have seen almost instant landscapes created at fancy new estates … but not cheap!

          Remember that they get very big, including very wide, so a lot of room for their older age has to be allowed. Except for the more columnar ones like ‘Dawyck Purple’ they get to like 30 or even 40 feet wide (and even taller). So one typical-shaped copper beech would fill most front yards and then some in time. I have mine up in a large field.

  6. Donald Russell says:

    I live in a Victorian carriage built in 1868.Next to my building is a copper beech that is huge.I
    was told that these trees are native to Europe and to get them to survive the cold New England winters they were grafted onto the root stock of the American Beech.American Beech trees have a shallow root system.This tree is growing a new tree and the leaves are green not purple which verifies what I was told.I believe their life is no more than 200 yrs. The only other place I have seen these trees is in front of the old Newport mansions.I read that the historical group that maintains these places spent a lot of money trying to save the trees that were dying ,not knowing they had reached their life expectancy.I understand they are now planting new ones.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Donald. Because seedling copper or purple leaf European beeches can be variable in color — all the seedlings from one parent won’t be the same intensity of purple — sometimes very desirable cultivars with extra-good color or for example unusual habit (like weeping) are sometimes grafted onto rootstock of a plain European beech. So sylvatica onto sylvatica is more commonplace, to insure the scion wood — the upper desired part — is the particular cultivar desired and stable. This makes for a more expensive plant than an unnamed seedling typically too. To determine if your rootstock that is showing itself is European or American you could look at this leaf ID comparison photo and also this one, for instance, as their foliage is slightly different as are other parts of the plant (bug, nuts, etc). Oregon State has an ID comparison set of links starting here.

  7. Wayne says:

    Hello
    On November 18 2019 a famous copper beach tree will cut down due to its failure to to live no more but it is estimated to have been alive for about 125 years a good life on famous property. A beautiful tree and I hope it’s remains will be chipped up and spread on trails for visitors to enjoy.

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