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Mother Nature Monday: The American Beech Tree

There are many ways to identify a tree. The tree’s bark, roots, leaves and leaf buds are all some of the parts of a tree that can help, as are the places that the tree is growing.

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This time of year, many of the trees still do not have their leaves, but their leaf buds are starting to swell. A tree can be identified by its leaf bud alone, and the Beech tree has a distinctive leaf bud. One of the largest trees that you see along the upper loop of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest Loop Trail is the Beech Tree. The beech tree leaf bud is very long and narrow, shaped like an extremely skinny pine cone. It is a shiny, glowing, golden brown. I am not aware of another leaf bud that is as beautiful.

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Much of the information and myths about Beech trees are based on the European beech tree, Fagus sylvatica. Our beech tree in the memorial forest is the American Beech Tree, Fagus grandifolia. The genus “Fagus” comes from the name of the Greek God of Beech trees, “Fagus”. The beech tree was alleged to be sacred to Zeus and it was also believed that the beech tree is the embodiment of Diana, the goddess of the wild woodlands.

“Wishing Rods” are often found tied to beech trees. The custom has its origins in Celtic tree mythology, where the beech tree is known as the tree of wishes. Fallen beech branches were said to be invitations from the wishing fairies. A wish written on the fallen branch or stick and pushed into the earth was supposed to be collected by the wishing fairy and taken to the deep underworld where all the fairies live. It was then examined by the Fairy Queen and she decided whether to grant the wish. The Memorial Forest seems to be a place where fairies and magical creatures still live and I love the idea of walking along the trail in the early morning and being observed by fairies in the trees and beneath the flowers.

Most of us have heard of the beechnut. The nuts of the beech tree are sweet and delicious to both humans and many different animals. The spiny fruit opens up in late summer, exposing two triangle- shaped nuts. The nuts are highly nutritious but, surprisedly, the contain organic substances that are slightly toxic. If you decide to eat a large amount of these nuts, more than 60 for example, you might feel a bit ill. It would be best to just sample a few. The nuts are the same golden brown as the leaf buds.

The leaves turn a bright yellow in the fall and they tend to hang onto the tree until the following spring. If you see a tree with silvery brown leaves in January or February it most likely is the American Beech Tree. Check to see if the bark of the tree is smooth with various blotches of gray, brown and green colors.

Morel mushrooms have a deep connection to beech trees and are often discovered in the leaf matter underneath the trees. Next week and the week after, Mid-April to May, is the peak wildflower bloom time along the trail. Treat yourself and take a wildflower walk with your camera in hand. You might get lucky and catch a wishing fairy under one of the big beech trees!

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