An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

American Beech

A Promising Fall Beechnut Crop

Beechnuts, high in protein and fat, are the primary fall and winter food for many forest wildlife species including Red, Gray and Flying Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks, Black Bears, Blue Jays, Tufted Titmice, Wild Turkeys, and Ruffed and Spruce Grouse.  The dependence of these animals on this food source makes them vulnerable to the American Beech’s cyclical nut production.

In the Northeast, American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) mast crops (amount of beechnuts produced by beech trees) have a two-year cycle: one year they produce an overabundance of nuts and the following year very few. Among other animals, Black Bears rely on these nuts to sustain themselves over the winter.  That a bear’s nutritional health affects its reproductive health was documented in  a study in Maine that showed that the mean proportion of female bears producing cubs decreased to 22% when a denning period followed a poor beechnut crop. During denning periods following good beechnut production, 80% of the productively available females produced cubs.

Many American Beech trees in the Northeast suffer from Beech Bark Disease which has seriously compromised their ability to produce nuts.  Invasive scale insects (Cryptococcus fagisuga) invade a tree. Through a presently unknown mechanism, excessive feeding by these insects causes two different fungi (Neonectria faginata and Neonectria ditissima) to produce annual cankers on the bark of the tree. This disease decreases nut production, and eventually lesions around the tree girdle it and causes the tree’s death. The diminishing number of healthy beech trees will have a significant effect on consumers of beechnuts as well as a broad array of other organisms.

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Leaf Marcescence

1-14-19 beech leaf _u1a9125Deciduous trees typically lose all of their leaves by late autumn. However, when snowshoeing or skiing through the woods this time of year, one is likely to find a scattering of deciduous trees that still have leaves clinging tightly to their branches. These plants are exhibiting marcescence, the trait of retaining plant parts after they are dead and dry.

Most deciduous trees form a layer of cells called the abscission layer at the base of each leaf’s stem, or petiole, where it attaches to the branch. This layer is composed of thin-walled cells that break easily, allowing the leaf to drop. A thin layer of corky cells seals the tree at the spot where the leaf was attached. Abcission layers are not formed on marcescent trees such as oaks and the American Beech, all members of the family Fagaceae. Therefore, their leaves do not fall off as readily, and many remain attached through the winter.

The evolutionary reasons for marcescence are not clear, though theories include defense against herbivory (e.g. browsing by deer), protection of leaf buds from winter desiccation, and as a delayed source of nutrients or moisture-conserving mulch when the leaves finally fall and decompose in the spring.

Leaf marcescence is most often seen on juvenile trees, and on the lower branches of older trees.

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Next Year’s Buds Already Formed

11-7-18 A. beech bud _U1A1228Because tree buds tend to swell and increase greatly in size in the spring, this is often the season when we first notice them and assume that this is when they are produced.  However, if you look in the axils of leaves on any deciduous tree right now, you will see full-size buds that were formed this summer.   These little packages of miniature leaves, branches and sometimes flowers, will remain on trees all winter, tightly closed and often protected from the elements by modified leaves called bud scales.  Come spring, when trees are once again taking up quantities of water, their buds will swell, scales will fall off (leaving bud scale scars), and tiny, pristine leaves or flowers will appear.  (Photo is of American beech, Fagus grandifolia, bud.)

Just a quick reminder that the NC Calendar ordering deadline is November 10th.

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Beechdrops Flowering

10-1-18 beechdrops

Congratulations to “imachayes,” producer of wondermyway.com blog, for being the first (of many) readers to correctly identify the most recent Mystery Photo as a Beechdrops flower. A fairly inconspicuous brown stem produces two types of flowers, cleistogamous flowers that self-pollinate without ever opening, and chasmogamous flowers that open, but are often sterile. Those that are not sterile are pollinated by ants as well as other insects.

Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) is a flowering plant that lacks chlorophyll and thus cannot photosynthesize and make its own food.  Instead, this plant obtains nutrients from American Beech trees. It belongs to a family of plants (Broomrape) whose members live as root parasites. Beechdrops insert a root-like structure called an haustorium (see photo inset) into an American Beech tree’s root and absorb enough nutrition to sustain themselves and produce flowers between August and October.  Being annuals, Beechdrops don’t live long enough to damage their host trees.

Because they lack chlorophyll and obvious leaves (their leaves are scale-like and pressed flat against their stem), Beechdrops are easily overlooked. Keep an eye on the forest floor near American beech trees for these 5 – 18-inch plants which are flowering right now. (Photo:  Beechdrops at base of an American Beech tree; inset:  root system of Beechdrops)

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Beechnuts & Black Bears

11-22-17 black bear scat and beechnuts 049A7821One need look no further than this Black Bear scat to know that American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) nuts (hard mast) are a preferred food for Black Bears, both in the fall and spring. They are an important food source for other wildlife as well, including White-tailed Deer, Fishers, Wild Turkeys, Ruffed Grouse and many small mammals and birds.

There are very good reasons why beechnuts are a preferred food for so many creatures. They have about the same protein content as corn but five times the fat content. Compared to acorns, beechnuts have nearly twice as much crude protein, twice the fat of white oak acorns and about the same fat content as red oak acorns. Research on the importance of beech mast for Black Bear reproduction shows that in northern Maine, 22% of the female black bears that were reproductively available reproduced following falls when beechnut production was poor. The proportion of reproducing females increased to 80% following falls when beechnut production was high. (Photo:  Black Bear beechnut husk-filled scat, 1 1/2″ diameter)


Porcupines Foraging For Acorns

10-12-16-porcupine-20161011_4950If you live near a stand of Red Oak trees, your chances of seeing a Porcupine this fall are greater than average. At the end of August, when the apple supply has dwindled, Porcupines move on to important new food sources – acorns and beechnuts. While American Beech trees in central Vermont have not produced a bumper crop of beechnuts this year, Red Oaks are experiencing a very heavy mast crop. These acorns provide sustenance for many animals – Black Bears, Red and Gray Squirrels, Eastern Chipmunks and other small rodents, White-tailed Deer and Wild Turkeys, to name a few.

Porcupines are typically one of the first acorn consumers, as they are able to climb oaks and eat the acorns before they drop and are accessible to many of the other animals that are limited to foraging on the ground. If you see the tips of branches nipped off with acorn caps (but no acorns) still attached lying under an oak tree, it’s likely that a Porcupine has been dining in the tree and discarding branches after scooping out and eating the acorns.If the tree is large, the Porcupine may reside in the canopy for several days. (Thanks to Emma for photo op.)

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Dead Man’s Fingers

7-27-16 dead man's fingers IMG_6258

When it first appears above ground in the spring, the club or finger-shaped fruit of Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorphaappears powdery white from the asexual spores that cover its surface. As it matures, it acquires a crusty, black surface. This is the sexual stage. The interior of the fruiting body of this fungus is white; just inside the outer surface is a blackened, dotted layer containing structures called perithecia which hold sacs of spores.

Dead Man’s Fingers, unlike most fungi, which release their spores in a few hours or days, releases its spores over months, or even years. It can have many separate fingers, sometimes fused together to resemble a hand.  Look for this fungus growing on hardwood stumps and logs, particularly American beech and maples.

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