Horticultural Highlight: European Beech, Fagus sylvatica
I find joy in the cemetery trees.
Their roots are in our hearts.
In their leaves the soul
Of another century is in ascension.
Of all our cemetery trees, there are few that are more majestic, and beautiful, than our European Beech, Fagus sylvatica. This beech has aptly been termed the Adonis, and Hercules of European forests. Native to Central Europe, southern Norway to Greece, France to the Caucasus Mountains, this is a tree reaching 50 to 70 feet in height, with an equal or even broader spread in width. Michael Dirr, noted contemporary plantsman, and author of the indispensible tree reference, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, therein says it all, “There is no finer specimen tree; so beautiful that it overwhelms one at first glance…” Dirr continues, while describing its highly recognizable bark, “Smooth, gray… developing an elephant hide appearance on old trunks; a beauty unmatched by the bark of other trees.”
Up until the Iron Age (1200-1000 BCE), this tree was an important contributor to human nutrition. The small, inconspicuous flowers of early spring, if successfully fertilized, will produce a three-winged-shaped nut, which is edible. These nuts, high in protein, were roasted, and when ground down, used in breads, as well as providing a source of cooking oil. In later times, the beech nuts provided valuable food for pigs, and other livestock, as well as food for much wildlife. The nuts are covered by an outer, four-segmented husk, which splits open at maturity. This husk has small, curved prickles, (think of Velcro) which help in seed dispersal, by attaching to the fur of animals passing by. The ancient Greek name of this genus phegos, is close to their word for “to eat”, phagein. The Latin species name sylvatica, means “of the woods”.
Having been cultivated in landscapes, for centuries in Europe, it is not accurately known when it was first introduced into the United States. One of the earliest known American plantings occurred in the first decade of the 1800’s, at the Elgin Botanic Garden, in New York City, America’s first botanic garden, and the present site of Rockefeller Center. Later in the 19th century, during this country’s ‘picturesque’ landscape movement, greatly inspired by Mount Auburn’s founding in 1831, countless plantings/designs included European Beech, and the trees became available at many U. S. nurseries.
Curiously, the European Beech has produced a distinguished cluster of mutations, purple-leafed, tri-colored, golden, and cut-leaf forms, as well as a small host of atypical growth habits; weeping, columnar, and contorted. Throughout our landscape we have samples of each of these mutations from normal, each often with escalating degrees of visual drama. A brief Mount Auburn sampling would include:
Weeping European Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’, Thomas Pakenham states, in his 1996, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, “When God made the beech, if botanists will forgive the expression, he made an architectural masterpiece, joining in one design the strongest form with the most delicate detail.” Again quoting Dirr, from his Manual…, “I have never seen one I didn’t love and no two are exactly alike; a most beautiful weeping form, sometimes the branches are horizontal for a distance and then turn down forming a large tent-like mass; other trees have a central leader from which the branches hang down at various angles…” On your next visit to here, you may view some of our 11 Weeping European Beech, on Ivy Path, Mayflower Path, Cherry Avenue, Lime Avenue, and Eagle Avenue, among other locations.
Purple-leaf Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’, While there are several different varieties with purple color leaves, noted plant writer, and explorer, Ernest Henry Wilson (1876-1930), gave this form his highest praise, “…in my opinion the only tree with colored leaves worth planting.” We are growing 15 Purple-leaf Beech, with one marvelous specimen on Central Avenue, opposite Story Chapel, and our largest example on Halcyon Avenue, along with the others offering color contrast throughout our landscape.
Copper Beech, Fagus sylvatica ’Cuprea’, Those with slightly lighter, purple-color leaves are generally called copper beech, and we display 6 of these here. These first came to public notice in Switzerland in the 1680’s. Our grandest specimen found on Gentian Path, might be visited vicariously, while reading the poem by Marie Howe, titled the Copper Beech,
Immense, entirely itself, / it wore that yard like a dress, / with limbs low enough for me to enter it / and climb the crooked ladder to where / I could lean against the trunk and practice being alone. / One day, I heard the sound before I saw it, rain fell darkening the sidewalk. / Sitting close to the center, not very high in the branches, / I heard it hitting the high leaves, and I was happy, / watching it happen without it happening to me.
The leaves of the Tricolor Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Roseomarginata’, are almost too beautiful to believe. Having an overall purple color, their outer edge is lined with a distinct rose, and/or pinkish-white border. This mélange of colors creates a reddish hue to the canopy when viewed from a short distance away. This effect is at its best in the early season, but often turns a less desirable tan, scorched color later in the summer. You may view this tree off of Story Road in the cemetery’s southernmost corner.
The Fern-leaf Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, has typical, dark-green leaves, but these leaves are very narrow, and gracefully dissected, from the outer margin towards the midrib, creating a fern-like appearance. You may see several beautiful specimens located at Cherry Avenue, Story Road, and Larch Avenue.
In addition to the weeping beech, we grow two other abnormally shaped beeches. These are the extremely fastigiate, or upright forms of Fagus sylvatica ‘Fastigiata’, and Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck’. Each often have a dense arrangement of strongly upright branches, which create a narrow, striking contrast, to the normal wide spreading habit of the species. Fine examples of these are found on Barberry Path, Cypress Avenue, and Cherry Avenue.
Finally, we grow the Parasol Beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Tortuosa’, which is a small tree, often no more than 10 to 15 feet tall. It is also characterized by a twisted trunk, and a canopy with branches convoluted in more ways than seemingly imaginable. From some vantage points, the trees appear to have been created by a cartoon animator. In summer-leaf it may be difficult to fully appreciate these branches, but in the winter landscape, these become living abstract sculpture. We grow five of these, which are located on Story Road, Quail Path, Azalea Path, Spruce Avenue, and Ivy Path.
With 85 European Beech trees, including 16 cultivated varieties, any beech aficionado will be in their glory, seeking out these graceful, yet noble sentinels, which spectacularly help define our world famous, living collection.