On a recent outing up on the North Shore with my sisters, we took a little detour so my sister, Chris, could show us her “favorite tree”. It is a magnificent purple beech, probably 80 or 90 feet tall and 40 or 50 feet wide, growing in an expansive, pastoral setting on private property. Coming around a bend, the sight of that incredible beech against the bright blue sky on a summer day just took our breath away. Simply dazzling.
Purple beech, also called copper beech, are in what is referred to as the “purple-leafed group” of the species European beech (‘Fagus sylvatica atropururea’). Even if you have a hard time choosing a “favorite tree”, a I do, chances are good that on any given day, and in any season, purple beech might be your “#1”.
Purple beech grow 60 to 70 feet tall, upwards of 100 in a forest or under excellent conditions. Width (“spread”) is 35 to 45 feet. Shape (“habit’) is pyramidal to oval to rounded, branching low to the ground on trunks that can become massive with age. Bark is smooth, gray with black markings, developing an elephant hide appearance that is among its most identifiable and beloved features. Fruits are prickly husks, light brown, which on maturity open to reveal 1 to 3 small nuts. The nuts are an important source of food for wildlife including birds, rodents, deer and bear. At one time, pig farmers would set their animals out into the woods to forage for beech nuts, and people have consumed them as a sort of chewing gum or as tea.
The leaves of purple beech can range from deep blackish-purple to a rich burgundy and from light to dark green, depending on the season and the particular type (“cultivar”). The intensity of colors, often mixed on a single tree, makes it challenging to get good photos, at least for this casual photographer. The photo here does not do justice to the much-loved purple beech at the Medford Public Library. But you can visit that beech, which this year is loaded with fruits, plus some gorgeous old beech trees at Oak Grove Cemetery and at the Salem Street Burial Ground. Keep on the lookout for lots of beautiful old purple beeches on private property around Medford, including on Grove, High, Allston, Brooks, Vernon, Woburn and Forest Sts, Hatch Rd and Westvale Rd. The more you see, the more likely purple beech will move up on your favorites list.
Note on early leaf drop of maples: Lots of our maple trees are being affected by a condition called “tar spot”. Tar spot is a fungus that generally does not harm the long-term health of trees, but it sure is unsightly. In home landscapes, it is best to just rake up the leaves and dispose of them either by composting or by putting them out in the regular leaf recycling pickup. More information can be found at www.plantclinic.cornell.edu.