Identify an American Beech Tree

American Beech tree
Wendell Smith / Flickr

A beech commonly refers to trees of the genus Fagus that are named for a god of the beech trees recorded in Celtic mythology, especially in Gaul and the Pyrenees. Fagus is a member of the larger family named Fagaceae which also includes the Castanea chestnuts, the Chrysolepis chinkapins and the numerous and grand Quercus oaks. There are ten separate beech species native to temperate Europe and North America.

The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is the only species of beech tree native to North America but one of the most common. Before the glacial period, beech trees flourished over most of North America. The American beech is now confined to the eastern United States. The slow-growing beech tree is a common, deciduous tree that reaches its greatest size the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys and may attain ages of 300 to 400 years.

North America's native beech is found in the east within an area from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and Maine. The range stretches through southern Quebec, southern Ontario, northern Michigan, and has a western northern limit in eastern Wisconsin. The range then turns south through southern Illinois, southeastern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas and turns east to northern Florida and northeast to southeastern South Carolina. Interestingly, a variety exists in the mountains of northeastern Mexico.

Identification of American Beech

American beech is a "strikingly handsome" tree with tight, smooth and skin-like light gray bark. You often see Beech trees in parks, on campuses, in cemeteries and larger landscapes, usually as an isolated specimen. Beech tree bark has suffered the carver's knife through the ages – from Virgil to Daniel Boone, men have marked territory and carved the tree's bark with their initials.

The leaves of beech trees are alternate with entire or sparsely toothed leaf margins with straight parallel veins and on short stalks. The flowers are small and single-sexed (monoecious) and the female flowers are borne in pairs. The male flowers are borne on globose heads hanging from a slender stalk, produced in spring shortly after the new leaves appear.

The beechnut fruit is a small, sharply three-angled nut, borne singly or in pairs in soft-spined husks known as cupules. The nuts are edible, though bitter with a high tannin content, and are called beech mast which is edible and a favorite wildlife food. The slender buds on twigs are long and scaly and a good identification marker.

Dormant Identification of American Beech

Often confused with birch, hophornbeam and ironwood, American beech has long narrow scaled buds (vs. short scaled buds on birch). The bark has gray, smooth bark and has no catkins. There are often root suckers that surround old trees and these older trees have "Human-like" looking roots.

American beech is most often found on moist slopes, in ravines, and atop moist hammocks. The tree loves loamy soils but will also thrive in clay. It will grow on elevations up to 3,300 feet and will often be in groves in a mature forest.

Best Tips Used to Identify American Beech

  • The bark is uniquely gray and very smooth
  • The leaves are dark green with ovate to elliptic with a pointed tip
  • The side leaf veins off the midrib are always parallel to each other
  • Each of these side veins will have a distinctive point

Other Common North American Hardwood Trees