Beauty & the Beech

With smooth bark (perfect for carving hearts) native beeches grace hidden and peaceful woodlands. Chris Chapin hails their primeval beauty.
A mature beech forest
Above: The South Fork’s natural landscapes are surprising as this view of a pond ringed by beeches attests. Inset: A mature beech forest is open and park-like. Durell Godfrey Photos

    The beech is a beautiful tree. It is distinctive for its bark, which is smooth and gray in contrast to rough and brown like most other species. It is also, unfortunately, a magnet for vandals who carve their names or declarations of love into its trunk. No other tree provides such an inviting writing surface.

    In J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, the hobbits and their companions pass through the domain of the Elves, the “Golden Wood” called Lothlorien. The gigantic mallorn trees, the biggest in Middle Earth, which support the elves’ dwellings, are modeled on the beech.

    This is a good time of year to see beeches, before the green cloak of summer obscures the identifying bark and branch structure. There are two species here, the European (Fagus sylvatica) and American (Fagus grandifolia). The leaves of European beech are more rounded; those of American beech are narrower and more pointed at the tips. Location is the best clue to identity, however. A long-settled beech in town is probably European; one in the woods, or in a more recently developed area, is likely to be American.

    The European beech is not native to eastern Long Island, but has been widely planted in estate areas. Because it eventually attains massive proportions, it is not suitable for small sites. Also, a lawn beneath such a beech is out of the question, due to the deep shade it casts and the shallow root system. No sunlight plus no water equals no grass.

    European beeches can easily be seen from certain streets in East Hampton Village. Some, along Woods Lane, are recognizable because of their massive trunks and limbs that sweep almost to the ground. Looking around, you will see a number that were planted at the same time. They are sometimes called  Shipwreck Beeches. The story is that a vessel carrying hundreds of saplings foundered off East Hampton sometime in the 1800s. Residents salvaged the nursery stock, planted it, and the result is still with us.

    The American beech has a different personality and a graceful primeval beauty. Neither abundant nor rare, it is difficult to find in summertime. It is easier to pick out in autumn, if you look for swaths of pale yellow leaves in contrast to the golds of hickory and the reds of oak. It is easiest to identify in winter, however:  Last year’s leaves cling to the twigs of younger trees, with colors that range from caramel to parchment, and all the leaves are the same shade on a particular tree. Its pale, smooth bark is characteristic, as is its horizontal branching. In midspring, the beech is again identifiable, as it leafs out weeks earlier than oaks. For several weeks in May its bright green foliage stands out, until the rest of the woodland catches up. Then it seems to vanish until October.

    The beech forest represents the last stage of a predictable chronology of trees in our climate, a process called succession. Starting from abandoned pasture or the ashes of a devastating fire, the first trees to appear are sun-lovers such as sumac, red cedar, wild cherry, and sassafras. After some decades, oaks and hickories shade out the first colonizers, which decline and die. The oak and hickory stage can last over a century. But the final act — the beech climax — is beginning in scattered parts of the South Fork.

    A beechnut sprouts best on a shady forest floor with a consistent moisture level, such as that provided by mature oaks. As it grows it slowly changes the environment to its liking, making it less sunny and more humid. By leafing out earlier in spring, it starves young oaks and hickories of light. The beech has evolved a successful tortoise-vs.-hare approach. It is slow out of the starting gate, but its progress is inexorable. Once an individual establishes itself, it propagates steadily, one tree eventually initiating a grove. Because of the shade cast by the dense canopy, a mature beech forest is open and park-like; understory vegetation is sparse.  

    An uncommon community on the South Fork is the beech-holly forest, found in a few spots in the Stony Hill area. Winter is the best time to take a look at how they share space. Given that the beech hogs all the solar energy, the evergreen holly soaks up sunlight while the beech is naked. It can easily coast through the summer on what it earns in the off-season. Speaking strictly of serendipity, the bark on the holly is remarkably like the beech’s bark, smooth and light gray —  and the species are not closely related. A few places where you can find beech-holly forests are Stony Hill Road and La Foret Lane, both in Amagansett.

    The reign of the beech climax forest can theoretically last indefinitely, as once in power it tends to stay there.  While disaster in the form of fire, hurricane, lightning, or the hand of man may knock it back a few hundred years, it will just renew its relentless climb to the top. Almost nothing really grows well in the shade of a beech except for another beech.