The woods are mostly bare and gray, but American beech still shines. The trees, especially the young trees, retain their coppery leaves until spring. Beech is the bright ornament of the dark woods, gold leaf flecking the gloom.
The leaves are exposed to all of winter’s assaults and many of them abrade away until all that is left is translucent paper, etched with veins.
Other trees weather more slowly. Perhaps they grow in slightly more sheltered areas or have a genetic propensity for toughness. Their leaves keep the full, metaled color of autumn.
Botanists are fond of classically derived English neologisms to describe their plants and the scientists have not let us down here. Unfallen leaves are “marcescent” (from the Latin, marcesco, wither).
But nomenclature is easier than explanation. Why might trees be marcescent? One idea is that a fuzz of leaves might protect nutritious buds from browsing animals like deer. Having watched goat lips strip shrubbery, I initially found this explanation unlikely. Browsers are adept at taking what they like and leaving the rest. Goats work around tiny thorns with ease. A few crisped leaves would be unlikely to keep deer away from beech buds. But my skepticism should be tempered by actual experiments. I know of no such experiment in North America, but a study of beech, hornbeam, and oak in Denmark did find that marcescence had a protective effect for beech and hornbeam, but not for oak. Apparently, the lower nutritional content of the leaves compared to buds and twigs acted as a deterrent for deer. The fact that marcescence is most common in young, short trees and on the lower branches of older trees is another piece of evidence in favor of this hypothesis.
On the other hand, retained leaves may act as cues for ovipositing insects in the spring. Or so it appears for gall-forming cynipid wasps infecting one species of California oak. This tree species lives in a very different environment, but galls are also common in Sewanee’s forests.
Another idea is that the retained leaves subtly change the micro-climate around buds. There is experimental evidence for such an effect in Andean plants with rosettes of marcesent leaves. It is possible (although no-one has checked, that I know of) that the ice and snow that gathers on marcescent leaves might act as a buffer, protecting buds from the more extreme winds and temperatures of winter.
I encourage you to seek out beech on your woodland walks. The species is found all over eastern North America. On the southern Cumberland Plateau it has an odd distribution. Puckette, Priestley, Kuers and Hay’s excellent 1996 guide to Sewanee’s trees states that beech is found “almost exclusively in the bottomlands and the neighboring lower slopes of coves.” I’d add that the species also likes (strangely) dry ridges and the streamside habitat of the eroding bluff. It may be that the semi-domesticated hogs that ran through these forests for decades have caused the species to have a more patchy distribution than it otherwise would have done. Beech nuts were favorite food for hogs and in the late 1800s and early 1900s it is likely that almost no young beeches germinated across large parts of the mountain. The species’ present-day distribution is therefore hard to interpret.
Look closely and you’ll see another interesting feature: needle-like buds. Unlike the rotund buds of oak, ash, and maple, beech has stilettos on the ends of its twigs. They are quite remarkably elongate.
I am not the first person to marvel at this species. I have heard that Native Americans in these parts viewed groves of beech as sacred places. One such grove, in Champion Cove, has come up repeatedly in conversations over the years. A destination, perhaps, for a pilgrimage next year.
Thanks for the new vocabulary word. I may decide to refer to myself as “marcescent” if I make it into my eighties with a head of hair.
Ha! Yes — good thought.
Interesting info on beeches. I wonder if the right question might be: why do most other trees drop their leaves? BTW: have you come across any studies on whether beeches are excluding other species (creating monocultures)?
Yes, I wondered that myself — if this is such a great idea for beech, why don’t other species also use this strategy? Perhaps their buds are more vigorously defended by chemicals, or maybe their leaf shape makes them more vulnerable to the drag of extra winter ice?
Beech does sometimes grow in clusters, but I don’t think it excludes other species (e.g., through chemical means, like black walnuts).
Thanks for your comment!
Thanks so much for identifying the tree I have noted each winter. I have long wondered about those leaves. I’m adding the beech to my slowly growing list of trees I (mostly) recognize.
Beech is a great one to have on the list. Easy to spot, especially in winter.
I find the idea of retained leaves as signals for ovipositing insects to be an interesting one, since our pin oak retains many leaves all winter long (which makes keeping the deck free of leaves an ongoing process—when we bother). We had a huge crop of leaf and twig galls this year and last, with the twig galls caused by a cynipid wasp and most of the leaf galls by a midge (photo here: http://nadiasyard.com/2012/10/15/951/). I have a professor acquaintance, Dr. Michelle Warmund, who is doing a major research project into gall-forming insects, so I’ll run this idea past her.
The gall photo on your blog is fabulous!
I don’t know much about the biology of the various gall-forming insects, so I’d love to hear more. They are a diverse and fascinating group.
Oh, so that is what this tree is called….here in westchester co, NY , it is common to see the stark winter woods lit up in spots by the ashy leaves of the American beech…they stay on through the season and provide cheerfulness of a sort
A nice counterpoint to the bareness of the other trees. Some oaks also retain leaves in the winter, but none so faithfully as the beech.
how i delight in the marcesent.. many times in Maine’s frigid breeze, they provided the percussion,
to the winter symphony.
Beautifully put. Thank you.
Beeches, American or European, are so very elegant. I have often admired the retained almost translucent winter leaves. And it’s hard to beat the purity of the unfolding leaves in spring. thanks for the lesson and essay
I eagerly await those new spring leaves.
Great information and insights. Applications to be made across the disciplines.
Near Glasgow where I grew up I walked to school many a day past a long beech hedge. I recall peeling a dormant bud and being horrified that there were downy green baby leaves tucked in there that I had just now killed! I also miss the soaring smooth-skinned beeches from the woods – none of those on the central california coast, not that I’ve seen. Instead, for a smooth-barked tree, we get eucalyptus, planted up and down the coast, alas. Fascinating how much speculation there is – the more we look the more we realize we don’t know much!
Great story about the beech buds! They are widely planted in the UK as hedges. The European beech is a slightly different species with rounder leaves. Its bark is just as gorgeous though. Perhaps Manzanita bark is a good California substitute?!
In the woods up above our house, near the Ompompanoosuc River in Vermont, I’ve noticed that beech are almost the only deciduous saplings that continue to grow – almost all the maple and ash and even the oak are browsed by over-abundant deer. I do miss the the other trees, but it’s always a delight to see the leaves of the beech shining in woods these winter days.
Thank you, Mr. Haskell, for this blog, for the word marcescent and its etymology, and for THE FOREST UNSEEN, which is a real treasure of insight and information about the feel of life in the world around us.
Thank you, Joe. I’m very happy to hear that you’ve enjoyed The Forest Unseen.
About beech: I’ve also noticed that compared to maples and oaks, beech leaves seem to get through the summers here with less visible insect damage. Maybe the leaves have some extra chemical deterrents which might also act against deer browse?
I’ve often wondered about winter leaf retention myself. It also occurs with some oaks, which are in the same family. I haven’t the insect signal idea before and I wonder how it would benefit the tree. Are gall wasps mutualists rather than parasites?
Interesting idea. I am pretty sure that the galls are all parasitic and provide no benefit to the tree. So these insects would be a cost of leaf retention.
A further thought. On a walk today in a mature Sugar Maple, White Oak forest I noticed many apparently leaf-retaining Beech saplings, just as you describe. At first I took them for American Beech, which puzzled me a bit as I could hardly find a mature one anywhere. But to cut to the chase, they were Hop-hornbeam, or Ironwood (Ostrya Virginiana). Doing exactly the same thing, hanging on to leaves but in the understory only.
Excellent observations. I’ll keep my eye out for what ironwood is up to here. We tend to get it more along the river valleys than on the mountainsides. Very interesting to know that it is marcescent also.
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Marcescent – great word. Nice piece of writing to expand my appreciation of the Beech. I just saw some of these trees, with their leaves, on a hike in western Michigan.
Thank you, Brandon! Keep your eyes peeled for them — they appear in urban landscapes also.
This post reminded me of an article (link at bottom) I read a few months back, on why leaves persist on beech and oak. It offers some really interesting hypotheses and notes that beech and oak are both in the Fagaceae family, so perhaps the marcescence is due to some distant evolutionary traits? Maybe related to where they evolved, when, and how? I do agree that it seems unlikely that this trait would exist in order to deter herbivory – it seems to me that the leaves clinging to the trees would be nothing more than a very minor inconvenience to deer and other browsers. Anyway, give this article a read, I think you will find it interesting:
Hi Hannah, This is a great article. I was not aware of the mulch/nutrient hypothesis. This could be tested by seeing whether trees retain more leaves under poor conditions. I do not know whether anyone has done this. The last hypothesis, about evolutionary delay, seems less plausible — there is lots of variation in the timing of leaf drop among species which suggests that it is quite evolutionarily flexible. I suspect that we need more experiments to distinguish among these ideas. Thanks for posting this link!
I have been delighted by the number of beech that are identifiable on bluff-edge and in nearby woods in Jump Off near the Pinnacles. Winter opens up the view of everything near and far, and these small beech that were lost in summer’s sea of green become prominent. Thank you for your post and the lovely photo–nicely done.
Thank you Karen. I’m very happy to hear that you’ve been enjoying them. The Pinnacles area is beautiful.
I really enjoyed this blog post. I wanted to email you but I can’t figure out if there is an email contact link on your blog. I’m a student at Brown University in Providence, RI, and I work as a research assistant for a poet who is writing a book about beech trees. Just wondered if you had anything more to say about beeches beyond what you said in this post…especially in the category of personal stories. I’ve been rambling all over the place trying to collect a sort of informal oral history of peoples’ experiences, memories, etc. of beech trees, and I can tell from this post that they are important to you…If you like, email me at Rowan (underscore) Sharp (at) brown (dot) edu.
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I am little late in coming to this conversational thread. I am a huge fan of the beech. I am so sad to see so many beech trees infected with beech bark disease here in the north east. Are they sadly doomed or are they developing a resistance?
I learned about the plant called beech drop which only grows under the beech tree. I learned about it in a book call Teaching the Trees by Joan Maloof. She talks about it having a symbiotic relationship with the beech (a plant that does not photosynthisis!) Strange that I don’t see it everywhere where beech trees grow though. I would love to know more about it.
Also, very curious about the insect called “boogy woogy” or beech blight aphid. Saw it on some beech trees last year. White, fussy, funky clusters of bugs that literally boogy when you shake the branch. I love learning more about trees and the beech is one of my favorite!
Yes, beech trees are wonderful. We have a few beech drop clusters around here, but not many. They seem to be very patchy. I found a colony of the funky aphids and blogged about their biology on the following two links:
If you love beech, this might also be of interest:
I am interested in any insight on the winter color variation. I have planted 15 to 20 on my acre lot. They transplant very easily. I usually pick them taller than me and only get an 18″ dia root ball. Some get almost paper white in February but others remain very brown. I do notice the brown leaves also have a more aggressive jagged edge on the leaf.
Very interesting observation. I see this in the woods too — but I have no explanation. I’ve suspected that location plays a part, but if you have many in one area, you’ve controlled for that, leaving genetic variation as a likely explanation.