Fagus sylvatica, the giant tree with smooth bark and colorful leaves

Fagus sylvatica tree growing alone

Fagus sylvatica or common beech is certainly one of the most majestic trees in our forests. As seasons roll in and out, the fabulous size of its crown, the vast diversity of its shapes, and the many appealing charms it offers make it a favorite.

Fagus sylvatica key facts :

Botanical nameFagus sylvatica
Common names – common beech
Family – Fagaceae
Type – Tree
Foliage – deciduous and marcescent

Bearing – round
Height – up to 75 feet (25 meters)
Breadth – Up to 60 feet (20 m)
Exposure – full sun to part sun
Soil – any type, well drained
Hardiness – Very hardy

Growth – average to fast
– end of spring (not significant)

Short presentation of Fagus sylvatica

Common beech is, together with the oak tree, hornbeam and elm, one of the most common trees in European forests. Thanks to its size and majestic bearing, it clearly represents one of the most elegant trees of all.

Whatever the time of year, Fagus sylvatica contributes to the beauty of every garden:

  • in spring, the young leaves take on a shy orange hue that slowly turns into soft green. at the end of the season, flowers appear, but they’re so small it’s not even worth looking for them.
  • In summer, the smooth leafage with a soft fuzzy fringe turns an ever stronger green.
  • During fall, deep yellow to orange-brown is the color that overcomes all leaves, and the first fruits (beechnuts) appear.
  • Lastly, in winter, Fagus sylvatica also hoards the spotlight thanks to its marcescent leaves. Indeed, dried out and wilted leaves only drop from the tree when new ones start growing.

Another advantage of common beech is the great many varieties with different bearings and colors: ‘Pendula’, ‘Purpurea’, ‘Pupurea pendula’, ‘Dawyck Gold’, ‘Fastigiata’, etc.

Good to know for forest lovers: the leaves of the beech tree are often confused with those of hornbeam. Luckily, there is a clear difference between the two if you look closely: beech leaves have tiny, wispy strands along the edges, while those of hornbeam are slightly serrated.

Purple-leaved variety of fagus sylvatica

Planting common beech

Not a difficult tree to satisfy regarding its growth environment, the only requirement of Fagus sylvatica is to be planted in well drained soil to avoid any risk of roots wallowing in water. Apart from this constraint, it can grow in nearly all types of soil, with a rather sunny exposure.

When to plant it?

Favor the beginning of fall to plant your beech. It can thus make use of the entire winter and subsequent spring to settle in and create a root system that will help it cope with lack of water.

How to plant Fagus sylvatica ?

Forest planted with fagus sylvaticaUpon purchase, your beech sapling is in either of two forms: in a container or bare-root. This difference in packaging will change how you plant it:

  • If the tree is in a pot, of course your first step is to remove the pot and, importantly, break the root clump up a bit to free a few roots and rootlets (without damaging them).
  • For bare root specimens, you’ll have to soak the tree in root dip to help it recover from the transplant shock.

Apart from these two specific difference, planting Fagus sylvatica is pretty straightforward. Just dig a hole that is large and deep enough, add clay pebbles or gravel to increase drainage, and soil mix or very ripe compost to help the tree grow better. Backfill the hole, pressing the soil down as you go, and water abundantly.

If your tree is trained like a lollipop, help this top-heavy sapling stay upright with a stake.

Lastly, when planting it as part of a hedge, each specimen must be about 1 foot from the next (30 cm).

Caring for Fagus

To ensure your tree settles in well, diligently water during the first few years after planting, especially during dry spells.

If you’ve created a hedge with your Fagus sylvatica, prune it once or twice a year, in summer. Note, however, that there are regulations regarding hedge trimming. Indeed, in order to protect birds and animals, it’s illegal to trim or prune hedges and trees from April to July included (dates vary depending on where you live, see here for regulations).

Multiplying and propagation

Fagus sylvatica seed sproutingThe best technique to propagate a specific specimen of Fagus is to proceed through sowing of its beechnuts in fall.

Diseases and pests

Fagus sylvatica is occasionally vulnerable to canker, especially adult specimens (following the pruning of a particularly large branch, for instance).
In hot and wet settings, mildew may also lead to issues.

As for pests and insects, above all others you’ll have to deal with aphids and scale insects.

Pointy red galls on fagus sylvatica leafAnother common fiend is  Mikiola fagi, a small fly that attacks beech trees. This insect has a larva that produces a tiny, pointed gall on leaves, at first green and then red.

Uses of Fagus sylvatica

The massive size of common beech make it a preferred choice for landscaping large gardens and public parks. Nonetheless, since it copes very well with regular pruning, it also functions great when creating a trimmed hedge.

Image credits (edits Gaspard Lorthiois):
Pixabay: Helmut H. Kroiss, Franco Patrizia, Monika Schnabel, Hans Braxmeier
CC BY 4.0: Agnieszka Łubian