American Beech in Autumn; Balsamea Style

Cameras capture only a small fraction of the beauty in nature (especially my cheap Fuji).  The autumn mix of banana yellow, toasted golden russet and pale lime green colors of American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) often truly dazzle me.

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Looking east across the north half of our front yard, October 11, 2013. Click for much larger image.

In these pictures, the beech leaves are about a week beyond the lime green stage.  Beech and oak (which are in the same botanical family) retain their leaves and slowly evolving colors longer into autumn than our abundant red and sugar maples, also showy autumn clowns.  At the time of these pictures on October 11, 2013, almost all of our maple leaves were down.

The smaller, younger oak and beech keep their leaves longer than the big ones.  Many of the youngest beech hold onto dry, papery leaves all winter, especially if they are protected from strong wind.  They rattle in a breeze.

Beech is an excellent shade tree, ornamental, and climbing tree.  Its branches grow horizontal, not sharply angled upward.  The tree can have a spread of up to 40 feet.  And, they sometimes produce beech nuts, which I wrote about last September, particularly about the frustration of getting to eat them.

Someone who visited Balsamea once — blessedly only once — pointed to a ten-foot-tall young beech that I had cared for since it was a sapling, and said to me, if you can believe it, “What do you have that for?”  I explained that it was a beech tree with a nice shape, made good shade, looked nice, and had great fall colors.  He replied, “It’s a junk tree.  They get bark rust.”

People are the nuttiest animals.

Actually, although bark rust is very common to American beech in this region, many of them live long, fat lives with it, and we have some that are immune, among them our biggest, of course.

At Balsamea (not necessarily so throughout the surrounding area), “peak” fall colors arrive by the last week of September, except for the oak and beech.  For them it can be anywhere from the beginning to the middle of October.

In your mind, if you can, amplify by a factor of ten the sensual glory of autumnal beech as shown in these pictures, expand that into five dimensions, and deepen it with surprise, and then maybe you’ll get a true sense of what I get from the trees.  Of course, you probably get it on your own, with your local trees.  I just like to talk about mine.

The fourth dimension in this case would be motion pushed by the wind (making it even harder to get a good picture … especially when you forget to step up the ISO speed).  The fifth dimension is the sound of unisonant flourishes of the swooshing pines, the muffled clatter of their leafy neighbors, and the whistling and fluting naked branches of others, driven and inspired by the wind.

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There’s some gray birch foliage mixed with this beech, just left and a little below center.

By the way … maybe it’s just me, but I swear that beech sometimes smells like watermelon, especially in late spring.  I caught a whiff of it one day and could not tell where it came from, until I had occasion to skin a whip of beech.  Try it.  Scrape the bark off a fresh, live stick of beech, and see what your nose tells you.  Note: it does not TASTE like watermelon!

Furthermore, everybody knows autumn’s earth has its own scents.  So add aroma as a sixth dimension.

Enjoy our abundance of white pine in these pictures, too, The Great Tree of Peace.  That tree deserves an entire book of its own.

Pictures like this are only reminders of how I feel when often right in my own front yard nature rips my attention from its mundane trench and says, “Look.  Reality.  Enjoy the shock.  Savor the gift.”

Reminders only.  The pictures are not records of what the trees really look like.  Not at all.  The scenes are ten times more dazzling “in the flesh.”

  • Going Beech Nuts ( – With good pictures of beech nuts and their pods, this crafty author tells the story of gathering, shelling and eating beech nuts from the tree at the edge of the wild blueberry patch in his yard, after being assaulted with pods by squirrels, and concludes, “If somebody gives you a mouthful of beech seeds that they freshly harvested and shelled for you, know in your heart that they love you. Or they are just nutty above the neck.”  A lighthearted take on the matter.
  • On Beeches, Changing Seasons, and the Fairy Housing Crisis. ( – This author provides outstanding photos of big, very old beeches, and tells their story in depth, including ways to experience beech, such as, “But the beech, the well branched beech, is one of the best trees to climb. The bark is so smooth, you can go barefoot. That’s a really, really nice feeling, beechbark under bare feet.”  I smiled several times while reading this blog post.  The author also compares climbing beech with climbing several other kinds of trees.  But this piece is about far more than climbing trees, and if you like trees at all, don’t miss the pictures here.
  • Requiem for a tree: a ‘luminous emptiness’ ( – from the interesting blog, That’s How The Light Gets In; Books, exhibitions, films, music, places – anything that inspires. Here so I don’t forget.  See?  I’m not the only one who does such things as reminders.  In this case, its a reminder of a diseased and destroyed tree duly mourned, ending in a Seamus Heaney poem that speaks of the death of a tree for which, upon parting, “its heft and hush became a bright nowhere,” and which left a silence “beyond silence listened for.”  I recognize that silence.  You can’t listen for it, only be receptive to it, available for it to overtake you, the way trees don’t listen for the wind to sway them.
  • U.S. Forest Service tree fact database entry on the American beech – put on your scholarly face for this one.  It gives you all you need to know to graduate beech school, except the pictures.
  • And to graduate cum laude, use this USDA Plant Database section on American beech, with a disappointing image tab.  Thank the gods for Google Images where you can get the pictorial part of your education.
  • Still you’ll have learned nothing until you get out into the woods and hug some beech.  With your bare feet and hands, your eyes, ears, nose and heart.