Copper Beech

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
This grand copper beech commands an expansive view from its perch on the easterly slopes of Prospect Hill, near the intersection of Edwards and Prospect. Sitting upslope from Farnam Gardens' urban meadow, beside Yale's planetarium, and overlooking the Yale Sustainable Food Project's farm (and brick pizza oven!) you can glimpse the farthest reaches of New Haven: the towers of the Bella Vista housing project to the east and the industrial area beside Long Island Sound to the south-east. The long history of cultivation of the beech has resulted in trees with a variety of leaf colors. This one is 'Atropurpurea' and has dark purple leaves.
Sam Southgate
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Round-spreading crown
Date of tree entry: 
15.90 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.65 m

The copper beech's bark is light gray and fairly smooth, though it can have a wrinkled appearance. The bark is thin, so is easily damaged and highly sensitive to sunlight. Old individuals that are suddenly exposed to the sun, through the felling of surrounding trees for example, can suffer sunburn. This can actually cause the tree to die!
Twigs & branches
As can be seen here, the branches grow high up on the trunk and occur in an alternating arrangement. The copper beech can grow to over 30m - even up to 42m! But in exposed locations, as in this case, it will be shorter - usually between 15m and 24m and broader in its canopy.
The leaves of the copper beech are alternate, simple, entire margined (no teeth) and highly imbricate, or overlapping. This arrangement is very efficient for the tree because it means it can capture the maximum amount of sunlight. However, it also means that the ground beneath is heavily shaded and also doesn't receive as much rainfall. In a forest dominated by beech trees you are likely to find the ground covered in rotting leaves and fungi, rather than other understory plants and flowers. The leaves, when very young, are edible. One interesting behaviors in beeches is that they do not lose their leaves in the fall. Instead they may remain dry and brown on the tree until spring. This phenomenon is called marcescence and occurs most frequently in saplings and when the trees are clipped into hedges and on the lower branches of mature trees. This particular tree shows partial marcescence, typical of an individual this size.
Reproductive Structures
The copper beech is monoecious, which means that its flowers are unisexual but that both male and female flowers occur on the same tree. The male flowers cluster in drooping, long-stemmed catkins while the female flowers are born in pairs. It usually flowers in April or early May, though exact timing is climate dependent. As can be seen above, the flowers are small, yellow-green, and wind pollinated.
When pollinated, the female flowers of the copper beech develop into these triangular-shaped nuts (also called "mast") that are enclosed in these spiny bracts (modified leaves also called "cupules" or "husks"). Beechnuts ripen in the fall and can be eaten by humans. Small quantities of nuts can be produced from around ten years of age but typically a heavy crop is only seen after 30 years of growth. Both flower and fruit production is particularly abundant after a hot, dry, and sunny summer the previous year. There is usually a bumper crop of beech mast every four or five years.
  • Spring (April)
  • Summer (July)
  • Fall (another specimen)
  • Winter (February)
Natural range of distribution: 
The copper beech is native to Europe, rather than North America. There, its natural range extends from southern Sweden to Sicily and from northwest Turkey to the north of Portugal and southern England. In the southern part of its range in the Mediterranean, it grows only in mountain forests above 2,000 ft altitude. As an introduced species in the United States it can be grown extensively, through zones 4 through 7 or the US Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones. It reportedly tolerates a wider range of soils than the American Beech.
Origin, history, and uses: 

In southern England the beech is a dominant tree. It has historically been favored through the clearance of competing oak trees and through active planting for the furniture industry. Beech has in general been used for centuries in making furniture, especially chairs since it bends well without breaking, has a fine grain and has relatively few knots. It is rarely used in building since it decays rapidly without protection and is not very strong. The copper beech seems to have arrived in Britain as late as 4,000 BCE, possibly being introduced by humans traversing the land bridge between England and continental Europe. In Sweden, the establishment of the beech came even more recently, about 900 years ago, as pastures were expanded and cultivation of fields increased; regeneration of beech is favored by ground disturbance. There, the beech was cultivated in the Middle Ages as its nuts were valued highly as a source of pig feed. Beech masts, the nuts discussed above, are used heavily by badgers, squirrels, and birdlife.

The budding of the copper beech is triggered by a combination of lengthening days and increasing temperatures. The buds of the tree break open from mid-April to early-May. During the summer and fall, the beech invests significantly in the forthcoming spring. The conditions throughout the summer, especially in terms of rainfall, affect how many buds will be formed the following year. In the fall, the beech builds up reserves that will last it throughout the winter.
Other information of interest: 


The copper beech has given rise to many cultivars, or man-made varieties. Examples of some modifications that have been introduced include:

  • Tricolor: leaves green and white with pink margins
  • Zlatia: leaves golden in spring
  • Purpurea Pendula: weeping with purple leaves 
  • Cochleata: smaller, spoon-shaped leaves

The beech is easily cultivated, though it takes a while to grow at first and needs a lot of room. They are usually propagated via grafting so as to retain genetic material from older specimens.

Beech tarcrust


In common with other varieties of beech, the copper beechch is susceptible to the fungi Biscogniauxia nummularia, commonly known as beech tarcrust for obvious reasons. It causes the growth visible in this image and also leads to wood rot.

Media and Arts
Since they have been cultivated for so long and are frequently planted as an ornamental tree, beeches have been depicted in numerous artistic works. Here are a few snippets of poetry by some of our most famous poets titled after this majestic plant. Click through to read the full version:
The Copper Beech


Immense, entirely itself,
it wore that yard like a dress,

with limbs low enough for me to enter it
and climb the crooked ladder to where

The Copper Beech


It is half past ten in Stonington.
The trees droop apprehensive of the heat
And the sky has turned that pale suspicious colour   
That means that it cannot support more light.   
Here on the terrace I and a companion
Each pretends to read. The papers say
That it is 90 in New York today.

Copper Beech


Why is the earth angry at heaven?
If there’s a question, is there an answer?
On Dana Street, a copper beech.
Immense, like the tree of my childhood,
but with a violence I wasn’t ready to see then.