You’re probably familiar with the word beechnut, but likely your first thoughts pertain either to smokeless tobacco, baby food or chewing gum. American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is one of our more common trees and yes, the nuts are edible.
Small size and tightness to the hulls renders them of little commercial use, but their flavor is quite pleasing. Dried and ground into a coarse flour, beechnut meal gives pancakes a nutty flavor similar to buckwheat. Some people even roast the nuts, grind them, and use the product to make a coffee substitute. I haven’t tried that.
The triangular-shaped nuts are borne in spiny husks. They look somewhat like buckwheat seeds, but are a little larger. They can be eaten fresh or lightly roasted and contain significant amounts of oil. Much of it is the desirable monounsaturated Omega-3 type. Other than that, nutritional value is nothing to get excited about, but nuts are calorie dense and will keep you going in survival situations. Numerous wildlife species depend on them. Deer and rabbits browse the twigs as well.
If you rarely stray from cultivated landscaping it is possible you haven’t noticed this tree much. Beech has attractive smooth gray bark and copper-colored fall foliage. Leaves persist long after they have turned brown. After the leaves fall the long pointed buds are showy as well. When grown in open areas they develop into handsome shade trees.
They don’t usually mature and produce nuts until trees are about 40 years old. After that, fruiting can be sporadic. Some years they may produce little at all.
These slow growing trees are among the longest living things in our area. Some can live up to 400 years. Older specimens develop hollow trunks, ideal homes for wildlife. They are abundant throughout the eastern US and southern Canada.
So why aren’t they used more? Beeches have shallow but sprawling root systems, making them incompatible with most of the rest of our landscaping. Roots interfere with lawns and flowerbeds. Many suckers spring up from the roots as well. These shallow roots and persistent leaves in late fall and winter make them susceptible to fire damage. This alone likely accounts for their absence in the western US.
So what good are they other than survival food? The wood is quite durable underwater and was once used for making waterwheels for grist mills. Today the wood is still popular for making barrels to age beer.
Actually, most beer is aged in steel tanks filled with beech wood chips, not in barrels, but that doesn’t sound as appetizing or romantic. At the breweries, the chips are placed in the bottom of tanks where the beer is naturally carbonated. The chips impart no special flavor, but they become a substrate for the yeast to grow on so the process is more efficient. Anheuser-Busch frequently refers to its beech wood aged Budweiser beer in its commercials.
Beech is also used for flooring, furniture, and gunstocks. Due to its density and high energy output, it is a leading source of firewood. Long live the beech.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.