American beech is one of the easiest trees to recognize in winter, according to Helen Hamilton, president of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society.
All you have to do is look for the tree's slender, sharp-pointed, cigar-shaped buds at the tips of somewhat zigzag branches. During the tree's foliage season, look for dark green leaves edged with even, sharp teeth and pointed tips.
American beech is a large tree, growing 60 to 75 feet tall with a trunk diameter two to three feet; specimens in virgin woods grow even larger.
Few other large trees have smooth gray bark — often carved with initial and dates by couples in love. In fall, the tree's leaves turn yellow and tan. Faded leaves persist on lower branches until spring when new growth emerges. In April, yellow-green flowers appear with the leaves in small, drooping clusters on male trees; female flowers are separate and arise directly from the young stems. The fruit is an angular, spiky husk with an edible beechnut.
"With the combination of smooth bark, pointed buds and prickly fruits, American beech can easily be identified in all seasons," says Helen.
The tree likes moist, rich soil but grows in a variety of conditions, even low land if it drains well. American beech ranges from southern Ontario, south to Florida, west to Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas and is common to all counties in Virginia.
In Virginia, colonists readily recognized the native beech because they knew its closely related European beech. The words "beech" and "book" come from the same root, says Helen, because history says Saxons and Germans wrote on pieces of beech board. Beech wood is used for inexpensive furniture and fuel, and the plant is widely used for ornamental purposes in large spaces.
The kernels in beechnuts are small, but they are sweet, edible and nutritious, and are favorite foods for wildlife, especially squirrels, raccoons, ruffed grouse and wild turkey.
Learn more about Virginia's native plants at www.claytonvnps.org.
Winter plant careWhen warm winter days return, you may want to water your evergreens because winds really dehydrate them. A well-hydrated plant better survives hard freezes and harsh conditions.
Also, avoid shaking branches covered with ice or snow. Shaking limbs can break them, so wait for ice and snow to melt naturally. If a branch breaks, prune it off as soon as you can.
If you've covered plants with cold protection, remove that protection during the day so they don't get too warm when temperatures rise into the high 40s and 50s. You can also use any warm winter days to begin pruning and shaping your ornamental trees, shrubs and roses.
Grants available Museums, after-school programs, libraries, community centers and other organizations can apply for mini-grants from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Celebrate Urban Birds project. The $250-$500 grants are used to fund neighborhood events that involve art, gardening, science, community service or other cultural activities. No experience with birds is required. Apply by Feb. 15 at www.CelebrateUrban Birds.org.
Things to doBirding and trails. 7 p.m. today. Jeff Trollinger from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries explores the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail book "Discover Our Wild Side" during a meeting of the Hampton Roads Bird Club at Sandy Bottom Nature Park on Big Bethel Road, Hampton. Free, open to public. www.hamptonroadsbirdclub.org.
Gardening radio. Noon-1 p.m. today. Call in your gardening questions to York extension agent Jim during today's Hear/Say program with Cathy Lewis at public radio 89.9 FM radio. Submit questions by calling 800-940-2240.
Celebrate native flora. 7 p.m. Friday. Landscape designer and photographer George McLellen takes you to scenic spots with native plants during a meeting of the Hampton Roads Horticultural Society at the Woman's Club of Newport News, across from Riverside Regional Medical Center on J. Clyde Morris Boulevard. Free, public welcome.
Coal and the environment. 7-9 p.m. Jan. 21. The environmental impact of coal-fired power plants is the program topic for a meeting of the John Clayton Chapter, Virginia Native Plant Society at the Yorktown Public Library, Battle Road on Route 17 in York County. Chris Moore, science advocate for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's office in Hampton Roads, will discuss the effects of coal pollution on the bay's health. Free, open to public.
Kathy Van Mullekom is home and gardening columnist for the Daily Press. Learn more about local gardening at www.dailypress.com; e-mail Kathy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 757-247-4781. Find her at Facebook.com/Kathy.vanmullekom and on Twitter.com as @diggindirt.