Once again I am searching for signs of Spring. It is a rainy day and I am hiking in a park close to home. Like a lot of you, I’m sure, I am a sucker for woodland wildflowers. I get so excited when I find them. I am constantly on high alert for tiny spots of yellow, purple and even white breaking up the monotony of the leafy forest floor. But on this dreary day, there are no bright spots. Not one! The last of the snow hasn’t cleared from the shady spots and ice is still on the reservoir. So I lift my gaze from the ground to take a closer look at what is right in front of me.
What Makes Something Interesting?
Often when planning our landscapes and gardens, we think of ‘seasonal interest’. In my experience many people view seasonal interest as little green balls of some evergreen plant along the foundation and walkways of a home. I have always found this curious. People want seasonal INTEREST right? What’s interesting about a little green ball of a shrub that stays the same ALL THE TIME? The only way you can see a change in the seasons having that plant around is if there is snow on the leaves! To me, that’s not interesting at all.
What is interesting to me, are the late winter/early spring details of a landscape. This is the time when the birds have eaten most of the showy berries, too early for flowers and leaves, and the evergreens – well, they’re still green. This a terrific time explore the landscape or the natural area around you and start to notice other details. It is these details you can emphasize and multiply in your garden for true seasonal interest.
On this trip what catches my eye are the beech trees. The young trees are hanging on to their light tan leaves, fluttering as the rain lands on them. American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) are natives of the Northeast. Growing to 120 feet tall and nearly as wide (though a little skinnier in the highly competitive forest situation), this tree with the smooth gray bark can be found as far south as Florida and west into Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Texas. These large adult trees make quite an impression as you hike the woods or explore your local botanical garden. Their elephant like wrinkles here and there just call out for hugging. (Tree huggers unite!) While the silvery bark is a welcome respite from the wrinkly, crinkly browns of the winter forest, this is not what immediately caught my eye. And if I have to be honest, and we are talking about seasonal interest – well, the bark pretty much stays the same year round, doesn’t it?
Today as I look forward in the woods, my eyes are drawn to those papery leaves hanging from the young beech trees. Beech spread through the forest in two ways, their delicious beech nuts, adored by wild turkeys across the land, and through colonization by root sprouts. You will almost never see a beech standing alone in the woods. Most often you will see 1 large beech surrounded by a few younger beech. And these younger beech sure do add some interest to the winter landscape.
Why do you just keep me hanging on?
Just like pollination’s the purpose for those beautiful wildflower petals there’s a reason why these leaves keep on hanging on all winter. Marcescense (use it 3 times in a sentence today and you own this word!) is the term for this winter retention of leaves. Beech are deciduous, losing their leaves each fall. But young beech, as well as their cousins oaks and hornbeams, hang on to their leaves throughout the winter. They are marcenscent. Why? As with many natural occurrences the jury is out on the definite reason, but here are some of the hypotheses:
- Protection – the fact that smaller, shorter, juvenile trees hang on to their leaves makes it likely the tree is protecting buds from hungry deer through the winter. The branches of young beech are at there perfect level for browsing nutritious buds during a snowy winter. Cloaking the pointy buds in leaves may keep deer from eating next year’s growth.
- Food – Leaves that fall to the forest floor in autumn slowly decompose adding much needed nutrients and organic matter to the soil. The theory here is the young beech hang on to their leaves into the spring so they can release the leaves to decompose after the fall leaves have already become part of the soil, thus adding a much needed nutrient boost just in time for the spring growth spurt.
- Water – Another belief suggests these leaves act as a snow fence, slowing down snow and directing it to the base of the tree as it falls, ensuring moisture through the winter and into the spring (IF it snows)
A canvas for porn?
Those wispy leaves hanging on cannot protect the beech forever. Beech have become billboards of the forest. For some reason people think it okay to let the world know by scraping it into the protective layer of a tree. It is rare to find a beech unmarred by a human’s sharp tool. I have kayaked to an island loaded with beech trees in the middle of a reservoir only to find pornographic illustrations carved into the bark. I’m not going to lie, there was definitely some talent there. I mean, to carve with such detail into the bark of a tree, all those positions… but back to the point. Not only does this detract from the beauty of the tree, it is a health concern for beech trees as well. Currently, beech are struggling with Beech Bark Disease, a problem caused by a scale insect feeding on the tree and a fungus entering the damaged areas where the scale insect has fed. Wounds on the bark, whether insect or human, allow the fungus to enter and kill the beech’s distinctive bark eventually killing the tree. On a recent visit to Saddler’s Woods, I found evidence of Beech Bark disease. On a more positive note this wonderful place just 5 miles outside Philadelphia is home to a remnant old growth forest, where you can be in the presence of trees, including beech, more than 300 years old. Visit. It’s wonderful.
Get out into the woods, notice the seasonal interest in what looks like an otherwise gloomy forest and use this as inspiration to guide your planting choices. Plant (or protect or hug) a beech tree or two (or more). Tell me where you have found stellar examples of beech trees. And for goodness sakes, especially if your talent leans towards the risqué, make sure any doodling you do is on paper!