CULTIVARS OF EUROPEAN BEECH
During the spring of 1981, I was visiting the Arnold Arboretum, Jamaica Plain, Massachusettes, on a plant hunting expedition. I wanted to see their old European beech ( Fagus sylvatica ) collection and discover a source for Fagus sylvatica 'Albovariegata', which I had seen in British Columbia. The collection of old trees was well worth the visit. Even more importantly, I was given the name and address of a person to contact who had 'Albovariegata' and other unusual beech cultivars- J.R.P. van Hoey Smith, a world authority on the Genus Fagus.
I wrote to Dick and we struck up a friendship that has proven beneficial to each of us. Dick has shared his knowledge and sources of Fagus sylvatica cultivars with me to such an extent that I have put together a very nice, young collection of my own. Arboretum Trompenburg (Dick's home), in the city of Rotterdam, has an excellent collection of beech with many mature, seed-bearing specimens from which Dick has introduced a number of new cultivars. I will refer to this collection many times in the following paragraphs.
Fagus sylvatica, the European beech, is native to Northern Europe and develops into a large, massive tree with a broad crown. It is also quite useful for hedging as it responds well to shearing. A long-lived tree, it can also attain great size. But a sensitivity to environmental conditions can destroy an ancient specimen in a relatively short time. Soil compaction around the base of the tree, a deepening of the soil over the roots, or a persistent change in the moisture content of the soil are three of these detrimental conditions. An ancient specimen at Hortus Botanicus in Holland died, due to a not so obvious rising of the water table and an increase in soil water content. The presence of a symbiotic fungus on the roots not only stimulates the growth of the tree but also actually increases its environmental sensitivity. Any nurseryman dealing with Fagus sylvatica has to practice more care than normal to ensure survivability of this product.
The species is propagated by grafting with some propagators being very successful and others having mixed results. Everyone has his own technique. One grafter does his work during the winter in a heated greenhouse when the buds swell on the understock. Another grafts in the early fall. A third does his by budding during the summer while a fourth will use an arrangement called a callous tube to generate knitting of the graft union.
Bonsai nurseries often offer beech seedlings for bonsai starters because they form excellent individual specimens or realistic grove plantings.
FAGUS SYLVATICA CULTIVARS
Dick van Hoey Smith sent me an article on beech cultivars that he had written for the International Dendrology Society Yearbook, 1975. I have used parts of that article in the following descriptions.
Longwood Gardens, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, has a large specimen of Fagus sylvatica ‘Albovariegata’ in a private part of the garden. I am not familiar with any other large plants in this country, but I do have several smaller ones in my collection. The leaves are streaked with white, which fades by late summer, and some branches do revert to green leaves. But with minimal pruning and planting in a lightly shaded area, ‘Albovariegata’ is attractive throughout most of its growing season.
Visitors to Coenosium Gardens are always attracted to our young specimen of Fagus sylvatica ‘Ansorgei’. It was discovered about 1884 in Germany and is almost unheard of in this country. In fact, it was almost lost to cultivation in Europe. A shrubby plant with narrow, dark purple leaves, it is ideal for the smaller yard or for the borders of a large garden. It is a plant that we propagate extensively every year.
Rochester, New York is an interesting city to visit, While on a sabbatical from teaching in 1985, I roamed through Highlands Park and saw some interesting specimen conifers. Surprisingly, I came across some very large beech in one of the city's residential areas, which was formerly the site of a nursery. The specimens over 4 feet in diameter were Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’, a cultivar with narrow, sometimes deeply lobed, green leaves. It originated in France sometime about 1805. With age the leaves tend to broaden somewhat and become like those of Fagus sylvatica ‘Laciniata’. A witches’-broom from this cultivar has produced a shrublike form of ‘Aspenifolia’ called ‘Mercedes’. The dwarfest of the European beeches, it has small, narrow leaves.
About 1900 bud mutation on a weeping beech resulted in Fagus sylvatica ‘Aurea Pendula’. An outstanding specimen almost 40 feet high and 5 feet wide is in the Trompenburg Arboretum. It exhibits the typical growth habit of 'Pendula'- a single leader with all of the branches hanging vertically along the main stem. Unfortunately the bright yellow color results in summer scorching of the leaves unless the tree is planted in partial shade. Too much shade turns the plant green.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Cochleata’ is a very slow growing shrub and ideal for the small garden. The leaves are oval, toothed, and spoon-shaped. Originating about 1840, ‘Cochleata’ is quite rare in the trade. In 70 years a specimen will be approximately 15 feet tall.
Cockscombe-shaped bundles of leaves are indicative of a very unusual variety: Fagus sulvatica ‘Cristata’. Not a variety that pleases everyone, ‘Cristata’ becomes very large and appears to be almost cloud-pruned with its clumps of leaves. A good example of this cultivar may be seen at The Creeks, formerly the private estate of the late Alfonso Ossorio in East Hampton, New York. In the trade since 1836, ‘Cristata’ is not very common.
One of the better known beeches originated on the Dawyck Estate in Scotland about 1800 but was not introduced to the nursery trade until 1913 by a German nursery. Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyckii’ grows fast, tall, and narrow to such an extent that a specimen at Arboretum Trompenburg was only 9 feet wide when it was 75 feet tall. Since 1968 five specimens of this form at Trompenburg have regularly borne fertile seed. The resulting seedlings have produced several new, choice cultivars. An exceptional specimen of ‘Dawyckii’ can be seen at the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusettes.
One of the ‘Dawyckii’ seedlings has been introduced to the trade as ‘Dawyck Gold’. It has the growth habit of ‘Dawyckii’ with the color of ‘Zlatia’, its male parent. The new growth is a bright gold that turns green in the summer. A second flush of growth in the summer makes a nice contrast of gold against the green, older foliage. Since it does "green up" in the summer, there is no burning of the foliage to worry about.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Dawyck Purple’ is another ‘Dawyckii’ seedling. In this case the male parent was a purple beech. ‘Dawyck Purple’ has the growth habit of ‘Dawyckii’ with dark-purple leaves. The color remains quite dark through most of the growing season. Combining these two characteristics has produced a plant with very high landscape appeal. ‘Dawyck Purple’ should be popular for many, many years.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohanii’ is a very popular plant in parts of the United States. It has dark red leaves that are deeply incised around their margins. Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohan Trompenburg’ is a seedling of ‘Rohani’ with improved color that shows little fading during the summer.
A seedling from ‘Rohanii’ named ‘Interrupta Purpurea’ is so deeply dissected that often the leaf margins meet at the mid vein of the leaf, dividing it into two or three sections. Not every leaf has such extensive dissection, but every leaf is deeply lobed. The color is good and the growth rate is quite fast.
A green form, ‘Interrupta’, originated at the same time, about 1950, also at Trompenburg Arboretum. This dissection of many leaves into the midvein can be best seen on the second flush of growth that usually occurs during July in North America.
A short drive from the Arnold Arboretum is the Hunnewell Estate. In front of the main house is what appears to be a magnificent specimen of Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’. It must be 50 feet in diameter. Interestingly enough, the original tree died and this specimen is actually a ring of trees created by layering of the branches of the original tree. Allowed to grow naturally, a series of concentric rings might very well result, much like the ripples moving outward from a splash in a pond. Standing in the center of the tree ring, many branches can be seen that have pleached (grafted) to each other.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula’ possesses branches that spread horizontally before drooping down toward the ground. Periodically a leader will emerge to raise the tree to a greater height before forming another ring of pendulous branches. This form originated in England about 1836. About 1837 a variation on this plant, Fagus sylvatica ‘Miltonensis’, was also found in England. It is perhaps even more attractive than ‘Pendula’ with a greater horizontal spread to the branches and leaves which appear larger due to more roundness.
Fagus sylyatica ‘Purpurea Pendula’ is possibly the most popular beech presently grown in this country. The demand still exceeds the supply. It is strongly pendulous and must be staked to grow upward. This growth habit, coupled with the dark purple leaves, results in a very pleasing form. The failure to generate a central leader is a drawback of this cultivar. Fagus sylvatica ‘Purple Fountain’ is a recently developed cultivar that does not have this problem. Staking the young plant will start it upwards, allowing it to continue such development by itself. The nurserymen growing this plant are quite excited about it. The leaves are not as dark as ‘Purpurea Pendula’, but the growth habit more than compensates for this slight difference.
The copper or purple beech has been around since 1680 and there are many variations to be found in the trade. Purple-leafed seedlings are fairly common in a seed bed of Fagus sylvatica and should not be vegetatively propagated and grown unless distinctiveness can be proven. Three of the best cultivars of this group are ‘Riversii’ with its big, dark, glossy leaves and wide crown, ‘Spaethiana’ (upper left), the one with the darkest leaves, and ‘Swat Margret’ (right), possessing very dark leaves with undulating rims. Each of these forms has its good points and its bad points. Personal preference will determine which one to grow. A fourth selection, 'Frisio' (lower left) has recently appeared from Holland. It may be even better.
A person with a small garden may be upset when he cannot obtain the following plant at a local garden center. There is a dwarf form of Fagus sylvatica with dark purple leaves. A 40 year-old specimen in Trompenburg Arboretum was 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide. The leaves are smaller than those of ‘Rohanii’, keeping in scale with the tree itself. Fagus sylyatica ‘Purpurea Nana’ is quite uncommon in this country, but Coenosium Gardens will always be propagating some for sales.
Very few people have heard of a plant called Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea Tricolor’ (‘Roseomarginata’) even though it is becoming quite common in this country. (Trying to rectify incorrect taxonomy in the nursery trade is like trying to stop an avalanche with a candle.) Fagus sylvatica ‘Tricolor’ is not known to exist in this country. In fact it is only rumored to still be present in France. Notice the similarities and differences in these two names. ‘Tricolor’ is a white-leafed tree, with each leaf possessing a few green spots and a pink margin. It is probably lost to cultivation. The tree sold under that name in this country is really ‘Roseomarginata’, a purple-leafed beech with an irregular pink margin, becoming somewhat bronzed by the end of summer with the pink fading. ‘Purpurea Tricolor’ is an attempt to bridge the incorrect name of ‘Tricolor’ with the correct name of ‘Roseomarginata’, which it received in 1888.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Luteovariegata’ has light gold margins on its leaves. The gold will sometimes extend well into the leaves. The gold fades somewhat during the summer.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Quercina’ is a small tree, reaching 40 feet in 40 years that possesses irregular, undulating leaves much like those of ‘Rohanii’ with one exception. ‘Quercina’ has green leaves. Discovered in 1888 in Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), ‘Quercina’ has become a very popular tree in America and throughout Europe.
‘Rohanii’ evidently pollinated a ‘Dawyckii’ at Trompenburg Arboretum, resulting in a seedling that has become a very popular beech in America. Fagus sylyatica ‘Red Obelisk’ is a tall, narrow tree, just like ‘Dawyckii’ but with dark, purple leaves that are irregular and undulating just like ‘Rohanii’. At first this tree was to be called ‘Rohan Obelisk’ but the persistence of an occasionally undissected leaf prevented such a name from being used as it would be misleading. I have seen the parent tree at Trompenburg several times and the growth habit, plus the striking leaves, make it one of my favorites. The picture to the left shows young plants of 'Red Obelisk' and 'Dawyck Gold' in the same planting.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Rohan Gold’ is a nice member of my collection. The leaves are dissected much like that of ‘Quercina’ but the foliage is bright gold when it first appears and then gradually fades to light green. The second flush in the summer shows up bright gold against a light green background.
There is a beech with round, green leaves and an upright growth habit named Fagus sylvatica ‘Rotundifolia’. It is a very choice plant for the larger landscape. Discovered about 1870, ‘Rotundifolia’ has not become too common in the nursery trade, ‘Cockleshell’ is supposedly a sport from this cultivar with smaller leaves and a more ascending growth habit. I purchased a few just for comparison but have yet to see any noticeable difference.
Whenever I visit the Arnold Arboretum, I just have to walk down to the old beech collection and photograph a plant that is so gnarled and twisted that it reminds me of Sleepy Hollow and the night of the headless horseman, Fagus sylvatica ‘Tortuosa’ is a wide-spreading beech with twisted and contorted branches that are quite pendulous at their ends. This cultivar is supposed to come true from seed and has actually formed colonies across parts of Europe.
Fagus sylvatica ‘Tortuosa Purpurea’ is the same type of plant as ‘Tortuosa’ but with dark purple leaves.
A few of the newer selections from Europe include Fagus sylvatica ‘Striata’ which has green leaves with dark lines spreading out in a fanlike shape. Another, Fagus sylvatica ‘Greenwood’ is an open growing form with small, round green leaves.
Fagus sylvatica 'Silverwood' has white variegation on some of its leaves. The color seems to show best in shaded settings.
There are a few cultivars not discussed in this article. Some are old and no longer in cultivation while others are not distinctive enough to warrant the space. The newest ones are not yet available and will be added at a future time.
Fagus sylvatica is an exciting tree species with an amazing selection of cultivars. They do well in many parts of the country and I hope that the readers of this article will consider trying one in their own garden.
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