13 Beech Tree Bark Facts & How Dangerous The Beech Bark Disease Truly Is

Woman with a magnifying glass examines beech tree bark up close in the woods.

Beech trees make for striking landscapes, and dense privacy hedges, but beech tree bark is continuously under threat of being struck by beech bark disease.

A beech tree also has a shallow root system, which adds the additional risk of it being uprooted during storms.

Types of Beech Trees

The native range and habitat of beech trees are Europe,7 Asia, and the US, and these trees grow in many different types of soil. However, the preferred soil is limestone or a chalky type of soil. Beech trees live up to 400 years and can grow up to 50 meters tall.

The tallest native tree in the UK is a 144-foot beech tree located in West Sussex.

There are thirteen types of beech trees:1

Beech Tree Common NameBeech Tree Scientific NameBeech Tree BarkBeech Tree Hardiness Zone
1. American Beech TreeFagus grandifoliaSmooth, gray barkHardiness zones 4-9
2. European Beech Tree (Common Beech Tree)Fagus sylvaticaSmooth, silver-gray barkHardiness zones: 4-7
3. Copper Beech Tree (Purple Beech Tree)Fagus sylvatica f. purpureaLight gray, smooth barkHardiness zones 4-7
4. Weeping Beech TreeFagus sylvatica ‘pendula’Smooth dark gray or silver barkHardiness zones 4-7
Beech Tree Common NameBeech Tree Scientific NameBeech Tree BarkBeech Tree Hardiness Zone
5. Tricolor Beech TreeFagus sylvatica ‘purpurea tricolor’Smooth, gray barkHardiness zones 4-7
6. Fern-Leaved Beech TreeFagus sylvatica var. Heterophylla ‘Aspleniifolia’Smooth, gray barkHardiness zones 4-9
7. Japanese Beech TreeFagus crenataSmooth silver or gray barkHardiness zones 4-8
8. Engler’s Beech TreeFagus englerianaSmooth dark gray barkHardiness zones 5b – 7b
Beech Tree Common NameBeech Tree Scientific NameBeech Tree BarkBeech Tree Hardiness Zone
9. Oriental Beech TreeFagus orientalisThin, gray barkHardiness zones 4-7
10. Dwarf Beech TreeFagus sylvatica tortuosaSmooth dark gray barkHardiness zones 4-9
11. Taiwan Beech TreeFagus hayataeSmooth light gray barkHardiness zone 6
12. Mexican Beech TreeFagus grandifolia subsp. MexicanaLight to medium smooth gray barkHardiness zones 7b -8
13. Shining Beech TreeFagus lucidaDull gray barkHardiness zones 7a – 7b

What Does a Beech Tree Look Like?

The most common question surrounding beech trees, and one of the first asked is, what does a Beech Tree look like, apart from the distinctive gray bark?

Beech trees have dense canopies, catkin blooms, and triangular-shaped fruit called beechnuts.

Beech Tree Bark: Beech Tree Identification

Beech tree identification centers around beech tree bark,8 beech tree leaves, and beech tree fruit.

For instance, American beech tree leaves turn golden bronze in the fall, and their bark is a smooth silvery gray. The tree takes on an overall oval shape when mature, and it has glossary ovate leaves with pointed tips.

Beech Tree Bark

Beech tree bark protects the beech tree from disease and pests, but when the bark is damaged or unhealthy, it is easy for pests to invade and cause disease.

American Beech Bark

In addition to beech bark disease striking American beech bark, a study done in 2019 found that a so-called ‘beach leaf disease’ was wreaking havoc under American beech populations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Canada.

Beech leaf disease kills planted and native beech trees,9 and because it was only discovered recently, much about the distribution and impact of this disease remains to be studied.

Management and treatment of the disease are yet to be fully defined, but data exists on some therapeutic or preventive treatments including products that include nematicidal properties.

European Beech Bark

Beech bark disease also affects European beech bark, just as beech leaf disease affects European beech trees as a whole.2

Beech Tree Bark

Beech tree bark has medicinal uses, such as antiseptic, expectorant, and antacid. Furthermore, pure creosote created from the branches of a beech tree is said to bring relief from toothache.

However, when beech bark disease strikes, beech tree bark basically becomes useless.

Beech Bark Disease

Beech bark disease was first observed and documented in 1849. In North America, beech scales were observed in 1890, while the Neonectria fungus was first observed in 1890. The connection between the insect and fungus was made in 1914.

Beech bark disease, therefore, occurs when its two main components collide: a fungus and an insect.

Beech bark disease first broke out in North America in 1920,10 when American beech trees started dying in Nova Scotia. By 1929 trees were affected in Massachusetts, and by 2004 beech bark disease could be found as far as Michigan and North Carolina.

The below table indicates a regression model which predicts beech bark disease severity related to the function of tree diameter as well as the tree’s relative growth rate:

DBH (Tree Diameter0.110.0113.5< 0.001
RGR (Relative Growth Rate-91.10.01-19953.1< 0.001
1|2 breakpoint-0.240.28-0.869< 0.001
2|3 breakpoint1.570.285.687< 0.001
3|4 breakpoint3.390.3110.8< 0.001
4|5 breakpoint4.910.3514.0< 0.0013

As the DBH increases, the chances of the beech tree experiencing worsening beech bark disease symptoms, also exponentially increases.

This means that for every 1 cm tree diameter growth, the odds of beech bark disease increasing in severity is multiplied by 1.114 (95% C.I. = 1.097 -1.132).

When the tree diameter is below 15 cm, the tree has the highest chance of experiencing minimal beech bark disease symptoms, in other words, the beech bark disease ranking stands at 1.

Beech trees with a diameter of over 50 cm have a high chance of experiencing severe beech bark disease symptoms or being killed by the disease. The ranking then stands at 5.

As the relative growth rate of a beech tree increases, the tree will likely experience minimal beech bark disease symptoms.11 Trees with a low relative growth rate would likely experience medium beech bark disease symptoms (this is based on a situation where scale is established, but the fungus has not had a devastating impact yet.

The below table is a summary of the accuracy of the regression model as highlighted by the previous table:

Observed DataBootstrap resamplingt-test
Beech Bark Disease GroupsAccuracyMean Accuracy
Range of Accuracyt-valuep-value
All Data42.9%42.5 ± 3.1%32.3 – 53.3%226.2< 0.001
Beech Bark Disease Ranking 142.6%60.5 ± 6.9%37.5 – 87.2%184.3< 0.001
Beech Bark Disease Ranking 238.8%39.0 ± 6.1%21.2 – 59.6%97.9< 0.001
Beech Bark Disease Ranking 341.4%42.5 ± 5.8%36.5 – 63.0%122.2< 0.001
Beech Bark Disease Ranking 426.2%25.9 ± 10.2%0.0 – 83.3%18.3< 0.001
Beech Bark Disease Ranking 532.6%32.5 ± 11.8%0.0 – 100%33.4< 0.0014

Insect and Pathogens

The insect and pathogens combination that makes up beech bark disease has killed millions of American beech trees and has had a devastating effect on northern hardwood forests,12 where beech trees are one of the primary tree species.

Disease Development and Symptoms

The description and identification of beech bark disease development and symptoms are as follows:13

Photo that shows the stages of beech bark disease.

  • Advancing front: The tree is taken over by beech-scale insects and the bark is damaged.
  • Killing front: The Nectria fungus starts infecting the tree via the damaged bark. This process typically takes a few years to start.
  • Aftermath zone: This refers to dying trees due to advanced beech bark disease.

The visual symptoms of beech bark disease are as follows:

  • White blotches on the tree trunk caused by beech scales. These white blotches are of a waxy consistency.
  • Once the Nectria fungus has entered the tree via damaged bark, red or brown spots will appear on the bark and the tree’s leaves will turn yellow.
  • During the aftermath zone process, when the tree is dying, it will become weak and may be snapped by strong winds and storms.

Disease Cycle

The disease cycle of beech bark disease starts with the production of eggs by female beech scales.14 The female beech scales deposit their eggs on the bark of beech trees during the summer, after which they promptly die.

The eggs produce crawlers during mid-summer and will either settle on the tree from which bark they hatched, or may be transported by the wind to other trees.

It takes only a few days for the crawlers to settle and feed, and they do not leave the tree they settled on for the rest of their lives. Once settled, they produce white blotches as they start maturing.

As the beech scales continue to penetrate the beech tree bark, fissures develop which allows the fungus to enter.

Both N. galligena and N. faginata belong to the Neonectria fungi, and both contribute to beech bark disease. When the fungus enters the tree the killing front process starts and then eventually the tree dies during the aftermath zone.

Photo that shows the process of beech bark disease.

Beech bark disease has a devastating effect on beech trees and the ecosystems in which they thrive. Studies show that beech bark disease can kill over 50% of a mature beech tree stand, which means the degradation of natural habitat for wildlife. In addition to the loss of habitat, there is also the loss of beechnuts, which are an important source of food for wildlife, in particular black bears.5

Beech trees provide shelter for birds and wood-boring insects, which is lost when the tree dies because of beech bark disease.15

In Michigan alone, 2.5 million trees were lost to beech bark disease and the figure is expected to escalate sharply.

The decline of tree species also means economic losses that can add up to billions of dollars.

Other common pests and diseases of beech trees include root rot and bleeding canker.

Related Reading: How Many Trees Cut Down Each Year or in 2022? The Deforestation Crisis Explained

Preventing Beech Bark Disease

Preventing beech bark disease starts with insecticide treatments that rid beech trees of beech scales. This treatment is only effective in the early stages of the disease before beech scales are fully established. Multiple applications of horticultural oils are required to ensure that the scales are killed.

To date, there is no known treatment for a beech tree that has already contracted beech bark disease.

Beech Tree ID: Beech Tree Identification

A beech tree, especially the American beech tree, supports a variety of wildlife species, including 126 species of caterpillar. Beech trees that support caterpillar species also support terrestrial birds that feed the caterpillars to their young.

Additionally, beechnuts provide food for several animals including deer, bears, foxes, squirrels, and more. Furthermore, beechdrops rely on the roots of the American beech tree to survive.

Humans also use the wood from beech trees for furniture and fuel, and some still use the bark and leaves of the beech tree for medicinal purposes.

Beech tree identification is easy, whether determining the existence of beech bark disease or simply giving a tree an ID.

Beech Tree ID relies on the identification of beech tree bark, beech tree flowers, and beech tree fruit.

Related Reading: Oak Tree Leaf Identification Chart With Locations (13 Oak Species)

What Does A Beechwood Tree Look Like?

There are several different types of Beechwood trees, with the most common being the American beech tree and the European beech tree.

The American beech tree is the only native beech tree in the US and is identified by its medium gray bark, dense canopy with golden bronze leaves in the fall, and beechnuts. American beech trees grow up to 120 feet tall.

The European beech tree, or common beech tree, is the most widely spread beech tree in the world and arrived in the US during the 1700s. This tree is identified by its dark green, 4-inch long leaves, and many cultivars including copper beech, dwarf beech, weeping beech, and tricolor beech trees.

Beech Tree Leaves

Common beech tree leaves, for instance, grow up to 9 cm long and have irregular edges and pointed tips.

Purple Beech Tree Leaves

Copper beech trees or purple beech trees sport purple beech tree leaves,16 which means the leaves are a deep shade of purple as opposed to the usual green.

Copper beech trees have been around for hundreds of years, but the color variation in these trees remains a mystery.

Beech Tree Bark

Although beech tree bark is typically smooth, some beech trees have rippled bark.

The reason for rippled bark hasn’t been established, but some theories state that internal damage may occur while the tree is still young, including water stress or hormone imbalances.

Rippled bark has no effect on the stability of the beech tree itself.6

Beech Tree Flower

The common beech tree flower (female) is yellow-green and they bloom during spring, after which they transform into spiky fruit which split open during the fall season to reveal beechnuts.

Male flowers grow in the form of catkins and they appear right after the beech tree leaves have opened.

Planting and Maintenance: How to Grow Beech Trees

Planting and maintenance of beech trees require the following steps:

  • Selecting a site that is far enough from other trees, and residential properties, because beech trees have shallow roots which can cause them to be uprooted during storms.
  • Beech trees should be planted in full sun, even though they can tolerate shade.
  • Newly planted beech trees should be watered regularly during their first two years, and if a drought occurs, these trees should be given extra water. Sufficient watering will help the tree grow well.
  • Pruning should be done to remove too-thin branches or diseased branches.
  • Weeds should be removed from around the base of the tree to ensure that the tree receives enough water and nutrients.
  • Adding a 3-inch layer of mulch will help with retaining moisture.
  • Prevention of beech bark disease should be done in the form of regular horticultural oil applications.

Beech bark disease means the loss of beech trees including their valuable leaves, fruits, and flowers, which is why beech tree bark must be protected at all costs to prevent beech scales from settling in, and to stop more beech trees from dying.

Frequently Asked Questions About Beech Tree Bark

What Are the Columnar Beech Tree Varieties?

Columnar beech tree varieties include the columnar purple beech tree as well as the Fastigiate beech tree.

What Are the Characteristics of Beech Tree Bark?

Beech tree bark is typically smooth and either light or dark gray/silver. Beech tree bark protects the tree from beech bark disease, but cannot do so when it is damaged by beech scales.

What Is the Characteristics of Beech Tree Leaf?

A beech tree leaf is typically oval with a pointed tip and wavy edges. When leaves are still young, they are lime green and covered in fine hairs.

What Is Beech Tree Identification Bark?

Beech trees can easily be identified by their smooth, gray bark which varies between light gray and dark gray/silver. Some beech trees develop bark fissures as they age, which resemble shallow, horizontal cracks.

How Do You Describe Common Beech Tree Bark?

Common beech tree bark is smooth and dark gray.

How Do You Describe American Beech Tree Bark?

American beech tree bark is smooth and medium gray.


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