Arboretum: Fagus sylvatica, European Beech
The American beech. Fagus grandifolia, is easy to spot in the landscape. Ever since man invented the penknife, the urge to carve initials in its smooth, light gray bark has literally left a mark. But its cousin the European beech can be trickier to identify. With this year’s late spring, leaves on both tree species are just now emerging from the tightly wrapped, sharply pointed brown buds. And while the bark of Fagus sylvatica is darker, it also is smooth.
Unlike its straight species cousin, however, the European beech does not multiply easily in the woods, and instead does better when deliberately planted in the landscape. A major attraction is its variety of silhouettes and leaves. The branches can hang low and “weep” or they can be fastigiated or strongly upright. The leaves can be finely incised or not, copper-colored or multi-colored.
The sheer variety and unusual beauty of the European beech made it a popular tree in the late 19th century for owners of grand houses with magnificent landscapes to match. European beeches were attractive for the wealthy who showed off with a collection of recently imported trees such as the European beech, the Japanese scholar tree and the Asian ginkgo.
The European beech, however, is not a long-lived tree in our climate. Haverford College once had five huge, 100+-year-old trees spanning the campus. The last one, in the front of Yarnall, was cut down in 2007 because it was riddled with decay from insect damage.
The Arboretum staff is looking ahead to the next 100 years and has planted many cultivars of Fagus sylvatica around campus. The fern-leaf beech, Fagus sylvatica ‘Laciniata’ is a rounded mound on Founders Green with finely incised leaves. Nearby, against the northern corner of Barclay Hall, stands the upright Fagus sylvatica ‘Fastigiata.’ The Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula” behind Morris Infirmary was planted in 1971 in memory of an alum.
On Leeds Green, on Lloyd Green, between the Brick Walk and the Gardner Center, in Running Man Courtyard, near Comfort Dorm and by Buttercup Hill above the Duck Pond stand young beeches whose beauty in leaf color and silhouette already adds much to the college campus, now and hopefully for years to come.