Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Mother of the Forest

Exploring The Last Green Valley – The Mother of the Forest

The Mother of the Forest

“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through deep snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree…” Henry David Thoreau

One of my favorite trees is the American beech. There is a very large and now decaying beech tree on a wooded hillside at my grandfather’s old farm in New Hampshire. Our forester pointed it out to me several years ago and over the years the “mother” tree has seeded many young beech saplings that can be found in most of the forest.

When walking the property, I usually climb the hill to see if the old beech still stands. I visited it a few weeks back and found it to be a hollow hulk with its tall branches felled by wind and snow. The body of the old tree now serves as a den site and home to several animals and birds.

American beech is a deciduous tree and easy to identify. During the winter and early spring months, when all other deciduous trees are bare of leaves, the younger beech saplings hold onto their pale yellow and light brown leaves until the new leaves form with the spring. If you look about, you’ll surely find the mother tree somewhere nearby.

The beech is known for very smooth silver-gray bark which unfortunately, and all too frequently, suffers the injury of a carver’s blade. Many times I have passed by a tall and stately beech and discovered the initials of two lovers who had passed by years before etched into the bark. The message of their undying love is ever growing with the expanding girth of the mighty beech.

I recall once hiking a remote stretch of the Nipmuck Trail in Ashford that passes through a stand of many beech trees. It seemed as if every tree adjacent to the trail had received the carved initials from a passerby. I don’t think Mother Nature intended the beautiful beech tree to be a trailside billboard and defaced for all to see for years to come.

Here are some facts about the American beech tree from my Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Forest Trees of Southern New England published by Connecticut Forest and Park Association.

The American beech is native to eastern North America and grows from Nova Scotia west to southern Ontario and Wisconsin and south to eastern Texas and northern Florida.

The American beech can grow more than one hundred feet tall. It is known for its distinctive silver-gray smooth bark that maintains an unbroken surface throughout its life.

The leaves are three to four inches long, dark green, oval shaped, and pointed at the tip with a toothed pattern along the margin.  The beech is “monoecious” with flowers of both sexes on the same tree. The fruit is a small sharply-angled nut in a soft four-lobed husk. The tree reproduces either with the dispersal of seedlings or through root sprouts.

Beech trees are very shade tolerant and favor shade more than other trees. In the forest it is often associated with other shade-tolerant trees such as sugar maple, yellow birch and eastern hemlock. It favors upland areas and cool slopes.

The beech is an important tree in forestry with a heavy, hard and strong wood harvested for uses such as flooring, containers, furniture, handles and woodenware.

Beech trees suffer from beech bark disease, an insect-fungus that causes mortality and defects. The disease is the result when the beech scale insect Cryptococcus fagisuga attacks the bark, creating a wound that is later infected by fungus causing a canker to form.

American beech can take up to 40 years to produce seeds. The fruit is a small three-sided nut which forms in pairs in a prickly burr. The nuts provide important food for numerous animals including ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, raccoons, foxes, deer, rabbits, squirrels, opossums, black bear and porcupine.

Next time you’re out walking the trails of our forests and parks, make sure to look for the American beech tree. If you find a large one, look to see if youngster saplings are nearby. You may find a name or initials carved into the smooth bark. I hope you’ll keep your knife closed and sheathed to be used for more useful purposes.

We live in a region rich in natural wonder. I hope you’ll share with me all that you, too, have come to enjoy about The Last Green Valley. Together let’s care for it and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article.  The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work


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