Weeping Beech

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
The weeping beech is a variety of European beech developed in England in 1836 and first introduced to the States in 1847. This particular weeping beech drapes its branches over the gentle slope of Farnam Gardens on Prospect Street. It’s hard to miss—gnarled roots emerging around the trunk and knobby branches bending low to the ground, like some kind of living dinosaur! In the late spring, summer and into autumn, the canopy creates an umbrella-shaped room, almost fully enclosed on all sides, dark green leaves creating the roof and walls. This tree appears actually to be three individual trees but in fact beeches reproduce vegetatively (they create clones by rooting many branches from one tree) so these three “trees” are identical and come from the mother tree, farthest up the hill.
Justine Cefalu
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Umbrella shaped canopy with one main trunk and 2 rooted clones
Date of tree entry: 
9.75 m
Diameter at breast height: 
0.99 m

The bark of Fagus sylvatica is dark grey or silver in color and generally smooth in texture. Because of their smooth bark, beech trees are some of the most popular trees for graffiti in forests--this tree is no exception. Like all trees, this beech tree has responded to graffiti (and other scrapes, insect damage and broken branches) by signaling a wound response that seals off the damaged bark. On this tree, the damaged bark tissue is a dark grey color.
Twigs & branches
The pendulous branches are what give this tree its variety name: "pendula." The twigs are brown and finely hairy when young and have, narrow, pointed, brown scaly buds (distributed in an alternate pattern), as seen in the picture above. The branching pattern of var. pendula comes typically in two forms: 1) a broad crown with spreading main branches and drooping side branches and 2) an upright central trunk with major branches extending horizontally and then drooping sharply downward to the ground. The main trunk of this weeping beech has the latter branching pattern and shape.
One of the most characteristic features of beech trees are the leaves--you notice them especially in the winter when the rest of the trees in northeastern forests have lost their leaves. Pale brown beech leaves are sometimes seen on branches, still holding on through the winter, making a shivering, rustling sound in the wind. Botanists call this state of being halfway between evergreen and deciduous "marcescence." Marcescence is most often seen in young trees and on low branches; some possible advantages for retaining leaves through winter include discouraging deer and other herbavores from eating the leaf buds during the winter, trapping snow at base of tree and providing a new layer of compost in the spring if growing on poor soil. It is also possible that marcescence is a transitional form in evolutionary history between evergreen and fully deciduous. In general, the leaves of a beech are broadly eliptical or ovate and have small teeth along the edges. They each have between 5 and 9 parallel veins coming out of each side of the central vein and have alternate overlapping arrangement. They have short stalks, are shiny dark green in spring and summer (above), and turn reddish brown in autumn. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salads!
Reproductive Structures
Beeches have inconspicuous yellow-green flowers that bloom in late spring or early summer (depending on the weather) and are wind pollinated. These trees are monoecious and the male flowers appear in long-stemed, drooping clusters while female flowers appear in short spikes.
The fruit of the beech is about 1'' and consists of a prickly bur that splits into four parts at maturity, to release the two triangular shiny nuts. The prickly bur is a four-valved cupule related to the cupule ("hat") of the acorn in oaks which also belong to the Fagaceae family. These fruits are called "beechnuts" and are edible, supposedly tasting slightly of vanilla. In fact, the genus name Fagus comes from the Greek for "eat," presumably named as such because of the tastiness of the nuts. The nuts are dispersed by birds and mammals (mainly rodents--and sometimes humans!).
  • Winter
  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Autumn (another specimen)
Natural range of distribution: 
Beech trees tollerate most soils but like especially calcareous or deep sandy loam. They are hardy in cool, moist temperate climates, like ours in the Northeast. The European Beech is native to central and southern Europe, especially in high altitudes. Its range extends from southern Sweden to northern Sicily, east to northwest Turkey and west through France, southern Europe, northern Portugal and central Spain. The European Beech occurs in MA, MD, ME, NY, OH, RI, UT and ON in Canada. The weeping variety is cultivated and does not occur in forests.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The weeping beech is a variety of the European beech, Fagus sylvatica, classified by Linnaeus in 1753. It is a dominant tree in much of European forests; in fact, the species name “sylvatica” comes from the Latin for “forest.” The weeping variety of the European beech was developed in 1836 by the English horticulturist and writer, John Claudius Loudon who worked as a city and garden planner in London and wrote and edited for numerous garden magazines. This tree was first introduced to America by Samuel Browne Parsons, a Quaker and nursery-man in 1847–he was traveling in Belgium in search of unusual plants and purchased a shoot to bring back to his nursery in Queens, NY. In fact, every weeping beech in America is descended from that one tree (which died right after its 150th anniversary in 1997)!

The European beech tree probably originated in England around 4000 BCE though there is evidence that that first appearance is a result of dispersal by Stone Age man who probably used beechnuts as a source of food. In Denmark, the tree originated much later between 500 and 1000 CE and was also probably dispersed by humans during the Viking Age. Interestingly, the beech is considered native in southern England and introduced in northern England, where it is removed from native forests. 

Beech trees have been used particularly in furniture making, parquet floors, and even railroad ties because of its hardness, pliability and load-bearing capacities. The inferior quality wood is used for wood pulp and it is also good for fires because it burns clean and slowly (it is used as a smoking wood for cheese making). The origin of the name “beech” comes from the Celtic word for “book,” possibly because beech wood tablets were used for some of the first books written in runes. 

The emergence of leaf buds, leaf coloration, leaf fall and a new set of leaves and flowers is determined by a combination of more daylight hours and increasing temperature. In general, leaf buds are produced in late summer, leaf coloration in late autumn, leaf fall in winter with partial marcescence (see "leaves" section above). Buds usually break from late-April to early-May, and, in a particular study done on beech trees in Switzerland, leaf-unfolding in the spring takes about one to nineteen days and six to thirty-six days for leaf-coloring in autumn.

Missouri Botanical Gardens: http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.as…

Northern Woodlands Magazine: http://northernwoodlands.org/articles/article/why-do-some-leaves-persist…

The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees: Little, Elbert L., Sonja Bullaty, Angelo Lomeo, Susan Rayfield, and Olivia Buehl. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Forest Service Fact Sheet: http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/database/documents/pdf/tree_fact_sheets/fagsyla…

Horticultural information: http://www.monrovia.com/plant-catalog/plants/2453/weeping-european-beech/

Beech Tree Symbolism: http://www.gardenguides.com/129808-meaning-beech-tree.html

Origins of Beech Tree: Myking, T., Yakovlev, I. & Ersland, G.A. 2011. Nuclear genetic markers indicate Danish origin of the Norwegian beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) populations established in 500-1,000 AD. Tree Genetics & Genomes 7: 587-596.

Pheonology: Schwartz, Mark Donald. “Phenological Variation of Forest Trees.”Phenology: An Integrative Environmental Science. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2003. p. 255-267

General information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fagus_sylvatica

Other information of interest: 

When I was looking on the Yale Library catalog for information about Fagus sylvatica var. pendula, I came across a mysterious book entitled “The Purification of Fagus sylvatica var pendula” by Paul Etienne Lincoln. Above are a few pictures from the book. It turns out to be a documentation of a performance art piece done in 2001 at the site of the oldest weeping beech tree in America, the very one that Samuel Browne Parsons brought back to his nursery in 1847. The performance involves distilling a wood creosote from the wood of the 150 year old stump and creating a crystal essence of the tree. The call number is NJ18.L6473 A12 2005. Go see for yourself.

Media and Arts

From a poem by James Schuyler, 1951-1991

Traffic sounds and 
bells resound in silver clangs 
the hour, a tune, my friend 
Pierrot. The violet hour: 
the grass is violent green. 
A weeping beech is gray, 
a copper beech is copper red. 
Tennis nets hang 
unused in unused stillness. 

-from Song

For an audio file of the author reading this poem and others visit:  http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Schuyler.php.


This is a photograph I took

Great use of positive and negative space!

This is the Weeping Beech tree at Cranbury Park

Taken on May 11, 2014

Beautiful picture