Many of you already know the American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) by its smooth, pale gray bark. The bark is so pale that it stands out in the forest and so smooth that people sometimes carve their initials in it. When you see a pale, gray, smooth trunk whose bark has carvings you know you've found a beech.
Mature beech trees are large, often 50-70 feet tall. Their main trunk is relatively short then the tree spreads out in slender branches. They often grow in pure stands in the forest but this can be their undoing. When one gets beech bark disease it spreads to the entire stand. I've seen this sad outcome in the Gallitzin State Forest near the John P. Saylor Trail. Like many tree diseases, this one is caused by an imported pest.
Small beeches are eye-catching in winter because they retain their leaves. The pale, paper thin leaves become paler as winter progresses and they rattle and dance in the wind, drawing attention to their understory host. Here's a twig showing the leaves still attached in early winter:
Step closer and you'll see that the twig is slender with alternate buds. Each one is nearly an inch long and angled away from the twig. In this closeup you can see the bud has many scales. Eight or more is diagnostic according to the Winter Tree Finder.
If you're lucky you'll find beech nuts under the tree. The husks are 4-sided, spiny and burst open to reveal one to three seeds inside. These husks had two nuts each.
Beech nuts are good food for wildlife so you're unlikely to find them in late winter... But now you can easily find a beech.
(photos by Kate St. John)