This massive tree will slowly reach a height and spread of 50 or more feet. Forest grown trees reach up to 120 feet. The tree is naturally low-branched with attractive glossy green leaves providing deep, inviting shade. Little grows in the dense shade of a Beech tree but if low branches are left on the tree no ground cover or grass is needed. In the fall, the leaves turn bronze but weather to a light tan color. Some leaves are held late into the winter if not blown off by the wind and the thin, smooth, silvery-gray bark is quite ornamental. The bark looks like elephant skin on older specimens. The four tiny nuts in each spiny bur of this American native are much prized by birds and various mammals, including man. The wood is almost white and is used most often in toys, cookware, furniture and for barrels which age beer. The tree is very resistant to decay under water so it was used to make water wheels in Colonial times. The wood is also used for tool handles, chairs, cuttings boards, and for making charcoal.
The beech genera is a small one, comprised of about a dozen species. They have smooth, pale gray bark, and ovate leaves which look similar to those of the hornbeam. The most distinctive feature of the beech is its unmistakable cigar-shaped buds. These buds are rather tender, and beech does not produce secondary buds. Nature’s way of protecting these buds is for the beech to retain its dead leaves throughout winter. For this reason - and the fact that they make for an interesting winter bonsai - the beech’s dried leaves should not be removed from the tree. Many lovely and colourful cultivars of beech are becoming available and should gain in popularity in the bonsai world.
Full sun, but semi-shade in midsummer.
Hardy in zones 3 through 8. Varies - the American beech is the most hardy, the Japanese white beech the least. All beeches can benefit from winter protection in their early years.
Frequently, especially during hot weather, to prevent the edges of the leaves from drying out. Reduce watering in winter. Appreciates misting. If F. sylvatica is watered especially well in late June to early August, it may have a second growth spurt.
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.
Pruning and wiring:
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. However, because beech does not produce secondary buds, it is important not to allow the internodes to become too long. Beech can be wired, but wiring saps the vigour of the tree, and should not be left on longer than three months. The bark of the beech is delicate and needs protection. It is best to do most shaping through pruning. Because of the apical predominance of the plant, prune the top back drastically, but prune lower branches sparingly. Because of its large leaves, beech is generally reserved for medium to large size 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 forest plantings.
Grafting, seeds sown in autumn (or use cold-treated seeds in spring).
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.
Pests and diseases:
Beech leaf miners, scale, bark beetles, and aphids. Aphid colonies on the lower branches can be dislodged with a strong stream of water from the garden hose. Colonies are often disposed of by predatory insects. Borers such as flat-headed apple tree borer or two-lined chestnut borer bore into trees weakened by stress. Prevent the insect infestations by keeping trees healthy with regular fertilization and irrigation in dry weather. Regular inspections of the trunk and branches are suggested for early detection of scales. Beech scale can be devastating to trees in the northeastern United States. Certain caterpillars can be controlled with sprays of Bacillus thuringiensis. Insect identification allows proper spray recommendations to be made.
Usually none are serious provided soil is not compacted and is well-drained. Several fungi cause leaf spots but are generally not serious to warrant chemical control. Powdery mildew causes a white coating on the leaves. The disease is most common late in the season. Bleeding canker forms cankers from which a brownish liquid oozes. Crown symptoms include leaves of smaller size and lighter green colour than normal. In severe cases the leaves wilt and the branches die. 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 a horticultural oil. Cankers infect, girdle, and occasionally kill branches. Prune out the infected branches. During periods of high temperatures and low rainfall Beech may scorch. Make sure trees are adequately watered and mulched.
Some species suitable for bonsai:
Fagus crenata: Japanese blume, Japanese white beech, Siebold’s beech - more suitable for bonsai than its European counterpart due to its slightly smaller stature and leaves. The bark is sometimes bleached with lime sulfur to accentuate its white color.
Fagus grandifolia: American beech - With its pale, silvery bark and rich green leaves, the American beech is considered a more desirable landscape plant than the European. It is not that common in bonsai, however, perhaps because it grows to over 100 feet, with leaves of 3-6 inches! If proper leaf reduction and dwarfing techniques are used, makes an impressive large sized bonsai. Zones 4-8. Fagus japonica: Japanese black beech.
Fagus sylvatica: European beech, common beech - This tree has the darkest gray bark and darkest green leaves of all the beeches. Common in both Europe and America, it grows to a height of 90 feet, with leaves of 3-4 inches. Hardy in zones 5-9.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’: cut-leaf beech.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropurpurea’ (‘Atropunicea’): copper beech - With its copper red to brownish-black foliage, this cultivar is commonly seen on the American east coast and in western Canada. Smooth gray bark, ovate-elliptical leaves. Do not let soil dry out completely. Buds grow very rapidly and it tends to do budding only once at beginning of spring. Pinching is done by removing the incipient leaves when they have almost come out of the bud. Do not defoliate aged specimens or those that were collected from nature. Leaf prune young specimens only once every 2 years.
Fagus sylvatica heterophylla: fern-leaved beech - deeply-cut, lobed leaves.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Lanciniata’: laceleafbeech, fern-leaf beech, cut-leaf beech.
Fagus sylvatica pendula: weeping beech - In nature, an awkward tree in its youth, but develops into a stunning specimen when mature.
Fagus sylvatica purpurea: purple beech.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Riversii’: purple beech - dark purple-black leaves. Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohanii’: purple fern-leaved beech, oak leaf beech - deeply cut purple leaves.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Spathiana’: purple beech - another purple beech, but the best for holding its color deep into the summer.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’: tricolor beech.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Zlatia’: golden beech.
Jahn (ed.) “The Simon and Schuster Guide to Bonsai,” Murata’s “Four Seasons of Bonsai,”
Owen’s “Bonsai Identifier”
Samson’s “Creative Art of Bonsai”
Tomlinson’s “Complete Book of Bonsai,”
Species information from Mitchell’s “American Nature Guides: Trees,” and Thomas (ed.) “The Hearst Garden Guide to Trees and Shrubs”.
USDA Fact Sheet ST-243
Compiled by Sabrina Caine Edited by Thomas L. Zane