After living in Central Illinois for the last 20 years, I can’t say I’m all that attentive when it comes to watching roadside scenery. After all, corn, soybeans and soil tend to meld into a unending conglomeration of boredom, save for the occasional spectacular sunset or storm. Variable topography and natural vistas are in short supply, so when we travel, the roads become a veritable immersion of beauty whirring past at 65 miles per hour.
This past week, on a family vacation that brought us through West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky, our eyes were attracted to a small tree that lit up the forest, even as spring remained in groggy hibernation. From a distance, I thought it might be some species of Prunus, but I hadn’t seen any sort of wild cherry hang so tightly to its foliage throughout the winter months. I took a photo and sent it to Steve Bender, my friend and senior writer (a.k.a., the Grumpy Gardener) at Southern Living. I knew that if there was a person best suited to identify a tree south of the Mason-Dixon line from a blurry photo, it was the Grump.
Steve identified the tree as the American Beech (Fagus grandiflora), one of his favorite native trees and a beautiful specimen in winter. It hadn’t occurred to me think of beech as a forest understory tree, for most of the beech trees that grow in our area are grand specimens whose trunks remind me of elephants.
I’ve since learned (from University of Minnesota Extension) that American beech trees are marcescent, a description for deciduous trees that hold onto their leaves throughout the winter. Marcescent trees do not grow an abscission layer between the leaf petiole and stem, so do not easily lose their leaves in fall. It’s a quality that beeches tend to outgrow (especially on the upper branches), which creates the effect we witnessed along the roadsides. While the forests were full of mature beech trees, only the younger generations stood out because they still held their leaves.
I was able to find a few mature specimens when we pulled off for lunch at the Nolin River Dam in central Kentucky. Up close, I could appreciate the mottled grey bark that Steve had mentioned, as well as more closely examine the foliage that had caught our attention so many times during the trip.
In the areas surrounding Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky, the young beech gave the forest a magical quality on the cusp of spring. Someday, I hope to return to the area, to enjoy and capture what Michael Dirr calls the “magnificent spectacle” of the beech forest.