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Tree of the Month - March 2002: Beech

This months second tree is Beech, Fagus sp. with about 12 species and a growing number of cultivars. Most common in Ohio is the American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, the only native beech in North America. This tree does not show up in nurseries often as it is intolerant of pollution. This is unfortunate for it will grow to 120' tall by 70 to 80' across and give wonderful dense shade. If you are driving in a city and see a mature beech it is probably an American beech left over from before the house was built.

European Beech is the most common species available at nurseries and comes in at least 12 cultivars ranging from almost black purple to golden foliage. Fagus sylvatica is more pollution tolerant than F. grandifolia. It has leaves that are 3/4 to 2" in size that will further reduce in pot culture. For 2 hand to small bonsai, the Japanese beeches, F. crenata and F. japonica have leaves about dime to quarter size.

Beech is a climax species, so they do well in shade as smaller specimens but will tolerate full sun except in the hottest weather. They prefer well drained rich soil so add extra organic content to your potting mix. They grow well in medium to shallow pots, tolerate wet soil and are hardy to Zone 3. Be sure it never dries out, this is why the extra organic content is recommended. Protect the beech from intense sun; it does better in a filtered location. It will let you know if it is not happy. While beech is hardy, protect it from wind and late winter sun, Japanese species may not survive below 20 degrees F.

Leaves are simple, alternate, deciduous, elliptical in shape, and coarsely serrate with parallel lateral veins running to the margin teeth. The leaves have the same general appearance as hornbeam. In spring the beech develops cigar-shaped buds. These buds are rather tender. The beech protects these buds by retaining its dead leaves throughout winter. Because of this the dried leaves should not be removed from the tree. Twigs are slender, gray, and zigzag with the long, pointed, "cigar" buds. Bark is blue-gray, thin and smooth. Fruit is a group of four brown triangular nuts enclosed in a spiny bur.

Use a fertilizer with more nitrogen than phosphorus or potash: 15-10-10 for example. Do not feed for the first month after bud burst. Then feed every two weeks until the end of summer. Increasing feeding for F. sylvatica in late June-early August encourages the development of a second growth spurt. If F. sylvatica is watered especially well in late June to early August, it may have a second growth spurt. Okay, a healthy European Beech may have a second growth spurt.

Leaf pruning every second year in late spring is important to reduce the size of the large leaves. It is safer not to defoliate the beech completely, or in the same year that it has been repotted. Prune new shoots from 3-5 nodes to 1-2 nodes.

Beech grows slowly, and does not require much pruning. Because beech does not produce secondary buds, do not to allow the internodes to become too long. It is best to do most shaping through pruning. Because of the apical predominance of the plant, prune the top back hard, and prune lower branches only as needed. The Jan/Feb 2002 Bonsai Today has an excellent article on how to prune Beech. Beech can be wired, but it should not be left on longer than three months. The bark of the beech is delicate and needs protection. Any scars will persist beyond your lifetime.

Mature plants generally set one set of leaves per season. In general, beech should not be trunk chopped like other deciduous trees, but rather grown out using sacrifice branches to obtain caliper. Beech will back bud with difficulty. Plants that are to be cut back should be young and vigorously growing. Try not to remove all of the preformed buds or you may lose the tree. Buds tend to form at branch collars, so overly thick branches can be removed and new, thinner ones started in the same location if you leave a small stub. This is true out on branches as well.

Repot in the spring, before bud burst, every 2-3 years. F. sylvatica may be repotted in autumn, taking advantage of its second growth spurt - Simon and Schuster's states that more drastic pruning of roots can be done in autumn than spring. Use basic bonsai soil mix but prefers loose acid soil. This may be a place to try out those coffee grounds, as they would be humus and acid.

Several fungi cause leaf spots but are not usually bad enough to warrant chemical control. Bleeding canker forms cankers from which a brownish liquid oozes. Crown symptoms include leaves of smaller size and lighter green color than normal. In severe cases the leaves wilt and the branches die. In this case avoid feeding with high nitrogen fertilizers, as it seems to worsen the condition of infected trees. Beech bark disease occurs when the feeding site of woolly Beech scale is invaded by a fungus. The fungus kills the bark and in the process, the insects. There are no satisfactory controls for the fungus. Control the disease by controlling the scale with horticultural oil. Cankers infect, girdle, and occasionally kill branches. Prune out the infected branches.

Because of its large leaves, beech is generally reserved for medium to large size formal upright, informal upright, and broom bonsai. Because beech grows so slowly, it is a long- term project to grow a specimen beech. This is why young beech are often used in groves and forest plantings.