The Tolerant American Beech Tree

Trees provide the very necessities of life itself. They clean our air, protect our drinking water, create healthy communities and feed the human soul.                                                        Arbor Day Foundation

The word “Beech” derives from the Anglo-Saxon boc and German boko meaning “book.” In Northern Europe, early manuscripts were written on thin beechwood tablets and they were bound between beech boards. Also, it’s said that the earliest Sanskrit characters were carved on strips of beech bark.

In Native American lore, the beech tree symbolized tolerance, past knowledge and the softening of criticism. Today, symbologists add patience, insight from the past and lightness of spirit. Used medicinally, the leaves can help the digestive system and they’re used for healing wounds, sores and ulcers. 

For the early settlers, American Beech trees were a sign of fertile soil. And with fairly shallow roots, they were easy to remove for plowing. At that time the trees were home to migrating Passenger Pigeons who fed on their nuts. One report said the birds were so numerous they broke off the limbs “from the sheer weight of their numbers.” And there’s a story about a tree on the old stagecoach road between Blountville and Jonesborough, Tennessee. It bore an inscription carved into the trunk that read “D. Boone cilled a bar on this tree in 1760.” When the tree fell in 1916 it had a girth of 28 feet. The Forest Service estimated its age at 365 years, “making it fully two centuries old before Daniel Boone inscribed on it.”

Researchers in Europe found that beech trees in a forest, although situated in a variety of conditions—stony or muddy, little or lots of water, nutrient-rich or poor soil—synchronized their rate of photosynthesis between them. Strong or weak, thick or thin, all members of the same species were using sunlight to produce the same amount of sugar per leaf, a process of equalization that was taking place underground through the roots. Entire beech groves—communities—have often grown from the roots of a single tree. And they can live for 300 to 400 years.


Pollinated by the wind, beeches have male and female flowers on the same tree. Their wide-spreading canopy provides shade in the summer and bronze coloring in the fall. They’re often found in parks, golf courses and cemeteries. Although they only grow 12” to 24” per year, they can reach a height of 80 feet and their girth can spread to about 70 feet at maturity. Beeches like six hours of direct sunlight each day and soil that’s acidic, loamy, moist, sandy, silty loam and well-drained, making them very drought sensitive.

The leaves are 3–6” long with sharp, incurved teeth on the outer edges. They’re dull green on top and lighter green on the bottom, and they turn yellow or brown in the autumn. The trees are easy to spot because they retain many of their leaves through the winter. Beeches produce an edible, hard, brown beechnut that’s a half to one-inch in diameter, which is a favorite of squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, bears and larger birds. Native Americans ate the nuts in small quantities, raw and cooked. And early settlers extracted oil from the nuts for food and lamp oil, using the dried leaves to stuff mattresses and pillows. Because beeches retain their smooth bark as they age, kids often carve their initials onto their large smooth trunks. Many trees are partially hollow and provide excellent den sites for various wildlife, including squirrels, raccoons and opossums. 

In the above image, a young beech tree in winter holds onto his leaves, perhaps not wanting to let go of them in spite of the fact that the sugar they provided from photosynthesizing sunlight through the summer had been internalized. By retaining his leaves in this way, he shines brightly as the sunlight rakes through the forest. Enduring strong winds, rocky soil and dramatic shifts in temperature, he stands straight on the hillside, his growth dormant until a pattern of warmer temperatures signal the time to wake up, take in more water and initiate the growth of buds and leaves, surfaces to absorb sunlight so his process of photosynthesis can begin again producing sugar. 

His lesson—tolerance—is that despite the  conditions of place, threatening winds and patience, uniqueness will shine within the diversity that surrounds us. When the climate is harsh, the airwaves foul and the forest threatened in so many ways, we can stand our ground and know that a more growthful season is ahead.  


The tolerant beech,

retaining his dried-out leaves through the winter,

sharing nutrients with others at the roots,

softening criticism of his diverse neighbors,

passing on the knowledge of being,

stretching arms to the sky,

sighs an ancient prayer of gratitude

for slow and steady growth. And sunlight.

David L. Smith


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