NATURE NOTES: American beech is a friend to all

By LESLIE BISHOP, guest columnist

Can a tree be a friend?

My dog and I often walk through a section of Yellowwood Forest near our house. There is a certain tree, an old American beech, that grows on a ridge along the trail.

The tree has a distinctive shape with a large, wide trunk that splits into two tall trunks. The main trunk is so wide that two of my friends and I could not reach our arms all the way around it.

My family calls the tree Woman Standing on her Head, because the two split trunks look like strong, long legs.

My dog knows the tree and always pulls me toward it because it points the way home.

Yes, a tree can be a friend; this tree is a beacon home, a shady place for a summer picnic and a distinctive character in a community of trees.

American beech trees are characterized by smooth, thin gray bark, very different from the thick and ridged bark of other trees.

The thin bark of beech means that the living tissue is close to the surface. When people carve their initials on a beech, they are wounding the tree, providing pathogens a way into the tissue.

Large, old beech trees often have odd shapes, like my tree friend.

Beech trees have tapering surface roots at the base of their trunks and often look like they are propped up by elephant legs or thick fat snakes.

Also, their growth pattern can be altered by injury to the growing tip from browsing by deer or storm damage. Another old beech in my backyard looks like an octopus with many thick arms reaching up from a base trunk.

Beech trees cling to their leaves in the fall and young trees hold their thin golden brown leaves all winter. On a winter walk, I love to hear the leaves tremble in the wind like natural wind chimes.

Come spring, young beech trees continue to grow very slowly in the shade of their maternal tree.

After age 40, beech trees produce both male and female flowers. The female flowers are pollinated by pollen blowing in the wind from other beech trees.

During their long lives, up to 300 years, beech trees can benefit many species of wildlife.

The fertilized female flowers produce beechnuts in pods covered by a prickly case. When the nuts mature in the fall, the pods open and fall to the ground. Many animals eat these highly nutritious nuts including wild turkey, ruffed grouse, woodpeckers, squirrels and deer.

As beech trees age, the interior wood rots, leaving partially hollow areas that provide excellent den sites for squirrels, raccoons and opossums.

In addition, during their long lives beech trees support many species of insects.

Douglas Tallamy reports that American beech trees support 100 species of Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), including the rare early hairstreak, an exquisite and rare blue butterfly.

He also states that on a per-species basis, American beech supports more wildlife than oak trees, which are traditionally ranked as No. 1 (Tallamy, Douglas W., “Bringing Nature Home,” 2007).

Yes, a tree can be a friend to all — wildlife and human alike. As I wander in the woods, our special tree points the way home.

Bishop_leslie_1031Leslie Bishop is a Brown County resident and retired biology professor from Earlham College. She is a volunteer interpretive naturalist at Brown County State Park. She can be reached through the newspaper at newsroom@bcdemocrat.com.