Blue beech is native to Eastern North America, primarily east of the Mississippi, as well as in pockets in Mexico and Central America. The habitable range is from USDA zone 3 south to zone 9.
This tree is commonly found in rich moist woodlands, along streams, and on north facing slopes (4). It is an understory tree in the forest, and can therefore tolerate heavy shade. This tree is easily killed by fires because of its characteristic thin bark. It can resprout, however repeated fires will kill this tree (8).
Blue beech is flexible in many of its site requirements including pH (from acidic to alkaline soils). This species prefers a slightly acidic pH, however it can also grow readily in soils that are slightly alkaline. For that reason, it is also found on calcareous rocky outcrops in upland sites in the wild (9).
Form and age
Blue beech is a small tree, reaching 20 to 35 feet in height, with a similarly sized spread. The form is typically globular in shape (4). The tree is found in both single and multi-stemmed forms. The stems of this tree are frequently four to five inches in diameter, but larger trunks a foot or more in diameter can be found (6). The record blue beech in the SE US was 75 feet tall and 21.6 inches in diameter at breast height (3). In the wild the tree can survive for 75 year before declining in condition. Some specimens will continue to live past 100 years, however this is uncommon. Having stated that, 100 years of age is very rare in urban environments where the tree may be more stressed because of difficulties that come with the average urban planting site.
Bark and wood
The bark is thin, smooth, and grey in color. The texture of the stem resembles a flexed muscle. The wood is dense, however after the tree dies the wood rots quickly (8). The wood is hard, heavy, and is generally free of splitting and cracking. Because of this, the wood was used by pioneers for making dishes and bowls. The wood of blue beech is diffuse porous, meaning that the pores are not concentrated in rings when you look at the stem in cross-section (2).
Reproduction and flowers
This tree has both female and male part on the same tree (monoecious). Male catkins are ¾ to 2 inches long and emerge from one year old branches, whereas female catkins are shorter from 1/3 to 1 ¼ inches long and appear at the tip of new twigs (6). The flowers are not very noticeable, appearing as small leafy bracts, and not a reason for why this tree is typically planted. The flowers emerge in mid to late spring and are pollinated by wind (7). The small nutlet can be identified by looking for a leaf bract that turns brown in color later in the season. This tree can be propagated by seed; to do so the seeds need to experience cold temperature around 40 degrees Fahrenheit for two to three months (5).
In the Managed Landscape
This tree is fairly versatile in where it can be planted, however it is not tolerant of salt, so planting it near roads that are salted may not be ideal. This tree is a good one for planting in parks, yards, or small gardens. It adds a nice fall color to the landscape and has a neat globular form to it. Wild life will consume the nutlets as well as twig buds and bark (1).
When planting blue beech in the urban landscape it is important to give it enough water during tree establishment. Applying mulch is a good way to retain moisture in the soil for this tree. In the wild, this tree grows in the understory and this translates to the managed landscape, with this tree being a good candidate for being a small tree with ornamental seasonal colors under a large shade tree. However, this tree is adaptable to light levels and can survive in full shade as well as in full sun. Overall this tree is very adaptable to moisture, pH, and shade conditions, and with no major pests (1). This tree is even tolerant of black walnut toxicity. (1)
Blue Beech will remain a small tree, however it can be managed to have different forms. One can buy or grow this tree as a multi-stemmed tree or with a single stem. To ensure a single-stemmed tree one can prune the lower branches and other stems to create this form. No major pruning is required besides this to have a healthy tree. However, you may want to remove any dead branches. This tree can be sheared to create a hedge if that is desired (2). This tree does not have any major pathogens or pests that attack it and at worst may get leaf spots (1).