Thursday, November 05, 2009

American Beech Trouble

Thursday, November 5, 2009

27 degrees here this morning, quiet, motionless, peaceful. The morning light is just breaking through the tops of the tall poplars, tamaracks and fir balsams and in minutes there will be a change from white to pinky-red skies as we are reminded of incoming bad weather. For now it's nice.

Back on Blog Action Day, October 15th, I wrote my own piece on climate change. It didn't receive much comment but I suspect it evoked some silent thought that wasn't shared. I mentioned changes to our forests as they concern me. Changes to the American Beech are always on my mind.

Years ago when I was a new transplant living in Woodstock with parents trying to make a go of life in Vermont, I was introduced to the beauty of the beech tree. Down in back of the chicken coops was a mature stand of tall, clean beeches. These were giant trees and I loved it every fall when the nuts dropped to the forest floor and I'd sit there in the sun, back against a tree, shelling little triangular shaped nuts and popping them in my mouth. I always remember one day when I rose a hand to my mouth only to be startled by a big buck deer who had wandered in close to me, unannounced and oblivious to anything but a nice meal. Those were difficult times for our family but there was something still pristine about the bark of the beeches then and the quantity and quality of their annual seed crop.

Today things are different. Changes have led to warmer winters, and the beech bark disease, around since the 1800's, has taken over yet another beautiful tree. If you're not familiar with the tree or the history, here is a summary.

First the beech scale attacks the tree and then fungi begin their work. The trees will actually live quite a while as the destructive process overtakes the tree. You'll notice sections of a tree reaching skyward, devoid of leaves or simply sporting totally dead branches while other parts live on.

Beech is a beautiful lumber and it's durability and whiteness has long been used for cabinetry and furniture. It has especially been coveted in Europe where furniture color and design often set an example for the rest of the world. The wood is very dense and it is a valuable firewood high in BTUs and clean burning compared to softer woods.

Beech bark disease gets to the heart of the tree and renders it almost valueless, often before the harm becomes noticeable. This means that the tree become useless even as firewood because the heartwood is rotted and wet. The limb wood still has value but few homeowners and fewer loggers want to deal with a more labor intensive job just for the sake for some firewood. The interior rot also presents an unknown safety hazard for the person with the chain saw as it's impossible to be certain if the tree will twist and turn while being cut. Here on the mountain we
try to use everything we can and if it cannot be firewood it can be saved for the chipper.

As standing trees die off, their internal fortitude makes them stand tall for a long time. As they rot, limbs fall from above but the main trunks last a long time. This makes them a woodpecker paradise and pileated woodpeckers, North America's largest living woodpecker, love to carve away in search of insects.

If you have American Beeches on your property or in your forests, or even any of the newer beech hybrid ornamentals, please pay attention to their health. Sadly there is little we can do about the scale in entire forests but there are some opportunities for limited homeowner control.

Writing from the mountain above Peacham Pond where a road report just came in of icy conditions in central Vermont. Here it has just started spitting snow and Karl the Wonder Dog is barking at 4 turkeys that have decided to breakfast at the platform feeder. We're heading out to discourteously withdraw their self invitation.

George Africa
The Vermont Gardener
Vermont Flower Farm


Unknown said...

One of these days I will figure out how to add pictures to prose. I enjoyed this entry. Trees are such gifts to enjoy in all stages. I have a shag hickory in my front yard that throws down nuts. But I don't gather them....

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post, George. We are about 15 miles north of you and have a good sized (and very beautiful) beech grove. So far I have not noticed any signs of this affliction, but now that I know, I'll keep an eye on them.

garden girl said...

Such beautiful trees, and the fall foliage is stunning. Sad they're being compromised by climate change.

Neil Moran said...

Hi George, I really appreciated this post. We're losing all of our beech trees here in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. They already cut them down in the state parks for fear of them falling on visitors. I've never read the whole story on beech trees. It is sad, but yet informative. I will share this with other folks who know there is a problem with beech trees but don't know the details of how the scale effects the tree. Here in Michigan they are calling it the "Woolly Adelgid" that carries the fungus. Thanks again for the post and pictures.