How to Identify the American Beech Tree

Use leaves, bark, fruit, and other tree characteristics to identify an American beech on your next nature walk.

american beech tree identification illo

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

The American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is the only species of beech tree native to North America. Before the glacial period, beech trees flourished throughout much of the continent. Now, this species is confined to the eastern U.S.

It is a large, stately, and versatile tree with an impressive leafy canopy that appears in many settings, from parks and golf courses to private acreages and forestry. Its canopy turns a gorgeous golden yellow or bronze in autumn. It is not a fast-growing tree, adding between 12 and 24 inches annually, so don't expect a quick transformation to your yard if you plant one. It compensates for this slow growth with longevity, living for 200 years or more, which means that subsequent generations will surely be able to appreciate it.

You may be wondering about the best ways to identify the American beech tree should you come across it in the forest. In addition to its signature beechnut fruit—brown, triangular-shaped nuts covered in spines—you can look at the characteristics of its leaves and bark. With this guide, you'll be able to point out the American beech on your next nature walk.

Description and Identification

a grove of beech trees

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The American beech also goes by the names beech, beechnut tree, and red, ridge, or white beech. Its crown is rounded and sometimes oval in shape. The tree can reach between 60 and 80 feet tall, while its trunk can be two to three feet in diameter. The spread of its canopy can be as much as 40 feet at maturity.

You may identify an American beech by its bark. The light bluish-gray exterior, which has a slight resemblance to an elephant's legs or trunk, remains fairly smooth as the tree ages. Because of the thinness of the bark, beech trees often suffer the carver's knife. If you spy initials carved in a tree, there's a good chance that it's an American beech. But just because others may have done it does not mean you should, too. Carving harms trees as it can disrupts the cells and transfer of nutrients.

The base of the trunk flares more than most other trees, leading to a shallow root system. This can make them more vulnerable to the elements, as well.

The simple dark green leaves of beech trees are alternate. They feature entire or sparsely toothed (serrated) leaf margins with straight parallel veins on short stalks and measure 3 to 6 inches in length. Female flowers (or "catkins") are small and borne in pairs. Male flowers are borne on globose heads hanging from a slender stalk, produced in spring (usually May and June) shortly after the new leaves appear. A single tree produces both male and female flowers, making it a "monoecious" species. Trees are wind-pollinated.

The beechnut fruit is a small, sharply three-angled nut, borne singly or in pairs in bristly triangular-shaped husks known as cupules. The nuts are edible but bitter with a high tannin content. They're a favorite food of squirrels, chipmunks, and birds.

Another identifying characteristic is the slender buds on American beech twigs, which are long and scaly.

Often beech trees are partially hollow, providing useful hiding spots and dens for wildlife such as opossums, raccoons, and squirrels. These hollow limbs unfortunately make it more susceptible to breakage during windy days or storms.

beech leaves closeup in autumn

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Native Range and Habitat

North America's native beech is found in the East. Its range stretches from Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, to Maine, through southern Quebec, southern Ontario, and northern Michigan. Its northwestern limit is in eastern Wisconsin.

The range then turns south through southern Illinois, southeastern Missouri, northwestern Arkansas, southeastern Oklahoma, and eastern Texas, and turns east to northern Florida and northeast to southeastern South Carolina. A variety also exists in the mountains of northeastern Mexico.

American beech is most often found on moist slopes, in ravines, and atop moist hummocks. The tree loves loamy soils, but will also thrive in clay, sandy, acidic, and well-drained soils. It will grow on elevations up to 3,300 feet and will often be in groves in a mature forest. It loves full sun and needs at least six hours of direct, unfiltered sunlight daily to grow well.


The American beech is typically used in landscaping. This shade tree has a vast crown that is appealing to many homeowners. The tree is also used for its wood, which makes great furniture, flooring, and railroad ties.

According to the U.S. Forest Service Fire Effects Information System, beechwood has good burning qualities and is therefore favored as fuel wood. "The creosote made from beech wood is used to treat various human and animal disorders," the database says.

Planting and Maintenance

If you are interested in planting an American beech tree, keep in mind that these trees thrive in loamy-to-claylike soil and generally moist but sunny conditions. It grows best in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 4 to 8. Plant far away from power lines because the tree canopy's eventual spread could cause problems.

Make sure to water newly planted trees weekly in times of low precipitation. Even mature trees might need a little help staying moist in dry conditions as they are especially drought-sensitive. While fertilizer may be needed throughout the early years of an American beech's life, it should not be applied in the first year or after the fourth.

This tree benefits from light pruning of branches that are diseased or damaged. This should be done in the winter or early spring, while the tree is dormant.

Common Pests and Diseases

Close-up of a red canker on a beech tree

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Scale and blight aphids are two common pests that cause problems because of the mold they secrete after feeding on American beech sap. The latter is sometimes referred to as the "boogie-woogie" aphid because "the nymphs lift their abdomens high in the air and thrash in unison" when a colony is disturbed, the N.C. State Extension says. High numbers of these aphids appear on the tree as fluffy, white masses. Scale aphids, rather, appear like small, shell-like bumps.

Aphid infestations can lead to beech bark disease, which is currently posing a significant threat to beeches across their entire range. The invasive pests are spread by wind, animals, and the movement of beech wood with bark intact. They cause damage to the bark and leave it vulnerable to fungal species that can damage vascular tissue. Look for small red dots developing on the bark—these are the fruiting bodies of the fungus. These clusters or "cankers" will continue to spread and eventually weaken the tree until it dies.

Prevention of beech bark disease begins with controlling aphid infestations. Insecticides can be used, of course, but a more environmentally friendly solution to minor infestations is a quick blast of water.

View Article Sources
  1. "Fagus grandifolia." North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.

  2. "What Happens When We Carve Into Trees?" Leave No Trace.

  3. "American Beech." Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

  4. "Fagus grandifolia." United States Forest Service Fire Effects Information System.

  5. "PDIC Factsheets: Beech Blight Aphid." N.C. State Extension.