Don't Know When to Quit - The American Beech

By Anita Sanchez

Amer­i­can Beech, Fagus gran­di­fo­lia, is a mag­nif­i­cent tree,
sil­very-barked and ele­gant. The leaves are sharp-point­ed ovals with
scal­loped edges — pale green in spring, emer­ald in sum­mer, gold­en in
autumn.

But in win­ter, beech leaves reveal an odd per­son­al­i­ty trait: they’re
stub­born. Long after most oth­er decid­u­ous trees have shed their col­or­ful
foliage, beech leaves keep hang­ing onto the branch. They lose their
autumn col­or, turn brown, shriv­el up — but stick stub­born­ly to the twig,
week after week, month after month. They just don’t know when it’s time
to quit.

The trait of keep­ing leaves after they’re dead is called marces­cence (a word that is sure­ly in the finals of all spelling bees.) Sev­er­al oth­er species of trees have this trait, too, most notably oaks, occa­sion­al­ly horn­beams and witch hazels. Why do some trees do this? The answer is…no one knows. As with most nature ques­tions, this one has as many answers as there are web­sites. Botanists hot­ly debate the rea­sons why some trees hold on to their leaves till spring.

Some botanists sug­gest that marces­cence is a habit that trees are in the process of los­ing. Per­haps they’re evolv­ing on the way from ever­green-ness to decid­u­ous­ness? Maybe some­day in the dis­tant future beech leaves will fall off like the maples and birch­es and all the rest.

Or is marces­cence an adap­ta­tion for sur­vival? Does it con­fer an advan­tage dur­ing bit­ter win­ters — a tiny bit of insu­la­tion against cold? Maybe the dead leaves act as a snow fence, trap­ping snowflakes near the twigs and pro­vid­ing an extra bit of moisture.

Often, marces­cent leaves are on small, young trees or on low­er branch­es of large trees. Per­haps the leaves lin­gered on the branch­es to pro­vide one last lit­tle bit of pho­to­syn­the­sis as the leaves above fell off.

Or maybe — this seems like­ly — it pro­tects twigs from win­ter munch­ing by deer. Maybe it dis­cour­ages insect dam­age. Or pro­tects buds against frost.

Or maybe the answer is all of the above. No one knows for sure.

Beech trees are in trou­ble these days in the North­east, bat­tling a plague called beech bark dis­ease. It’s caused by a tiny, soft-bod­ied bug called a scale insect (acci­den­tal­ly import­ed from Europe in the 1800s) that weak­ens the tree by feed­ing on the liq­uids of bark cells. The insect also spreads a dead­ly fun­gus from tree to tree. I’m see­ing the sad sight of more and more dead beeches.

But even with the dis­ease, indi­vid­ual trees can last a long time, send­ing out new shoots and branch­es, and leaves that hang on even when the game is up.

The brit­tle, dried beech leaves move in every breath of win­ter wind. They rat­tle and tap against each oth­er, mak­ing a sound that’s hard to describe. Chat­ter­ing teeth, per­haps? No, more like rain on the roof. Dis­tant cas­tanets. Or mice skit­ter­ing. What­ev­er the rea­son for those papery skele­tons of leaves, they are the music of winter.

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Winter 2016

Volume 34 , Number 1

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