Sunday, January 27, 2008


Or shall I rather the sad verse repeat
Which on the beech's bark I lately writ?
--- Virgil(1)

Did you think that carving words in beech bark was the invention of modern vandals? Not so. The smooth bark of beech trees has been used as a writing surface for millennia. Our word book comes from Old English boc (writing tablet), which derives from Old English beece (beech).(2) The most famous beech inscription

D. Boone
Cilled a Bar
On Tree
In Year 1760.

is preserved in a museum in Louisville.(3) The tree on which it was carved fell in 1916 at about 365 years of age. But, please, let the time-honored tradition of beech-carving die. Once the beech's thin bark is breached, the tree can be invaded by fungi that cause bark disease and heart rot. (4)

Plainfield has numerous beautiful beeches of two species, American (Fagus grandifolia) and European (Fagus sylvatica). There is a fine American beech at 975 Glenwood Avenue.

As this tree shows, beeches can be as beautiful in winter, when their smooth bark is most evident, as they are in summer. Another handsome American beech is at 1515 Charlotte Road.

Beeches hang on to their withered leaves long after most deciduous trees are bare, as shown by the Charlotte Road beech, which was photographed November 25. American beeches typically don't get the attention that their close relatives, European beeches, receive. European beech exists in dozens (hundreds?) of varieties (clones) selected for leaf color and shape. Copper beeches are European varieties. So are the much rarer cutleaf beeches. American beeches have toothed leaves. Teeth are lacking from the Europeans.

The massive European beech pictured at the top of the page is at 996 Central Avenue at the corner of Randolph Road.

Another handsome European beech is at 1077 Hillside Avenue.

1424 Prospect Avenue also has a very fine European beech.

Why aren't beeches used as street trees? They don't grow well when their root systems are restricted or where the soil is compacted by foot or vehicular traffic.(5) Beeches cast dense shade in which it is almost impossible to grow grass. They're at their best used as specimen trees in a large space.

Dan, a blogger from Spain who does a tree blog in English, wrote to point out that he had photographs of pine nuts on his blog. The photographs are great.
He also gives a step-by-step pictorial rundown of what he had to do to collect the cones, extract the nuts, and remove various protective layers. Read his posting and you will know exactly what to do should you encounter a pine cone from a stone pine, the source of most of the world's commercial pine nut crop. (You will also understand why you pay so much for the nuts at the grocery store.)

(1) cited in A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie, Houghton Mifflin Company 2007, p. 163.

(2) Dictionary of Etymology, Robert K. Barnhart, ed., The H.W. Wilson Company 1988, p.106.

(3) Native Trees for North American Landscapes, Guy Sternberg with Jim Wilson, Timber Press 2004, p. 181.

(4) Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, Charles Fergus, Stackpole Books 2002, p. 103. Fergus catalogues a large number of wild animal species that use beech nuts as food. Donald Culross Peattie, cited above, quotes Audubon at length on beeches and the now-extinct passenger pigeon.

(5) The Trees of Union County College, Thomas M. Ombrello, Union County College 1997, number 10.

Copyright Gregory Palermo

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