Fernleaf European Beech

Scientific name: Fagus sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’

This past fall, while sitting outside the “Great Harvest Bread Company” on Pine St., Burlington (VT), I noticed a striking tree which I had missed before. Previously, tasty cinnamon rolls or free bread slices held my focus more than this beautiful 30-foot specimen in our urban landscape. There was something different about this tree. The smooth grey, almost silver, bark looked familiar, but the leaves just didn’t match anything I knew. They were more delicate, somewhat pointed, and lacy in the warm breeze.

Because of Covid restrictions, I approached for a closer look cautiously as two fellow cinnamon-roll devotees occupied a bench near the tree.  From a safe distance my cell phone honed in on the leaves for a close photo, and for later research. To my surprise the couple announced, “Oh that’s a fernleaf European Beech. We just identified it with our cell phone.”  There’s an app for that. There are several tree id apps for smart phones, like PlantNet  (https://identify.plantnet.org/), LeafSnap (https://plantidentifier.info/) and iNaturalist (https://www.inaturalist.org/).

Native to central and southern Europe, and more commonly found in zones 5-7, F. sylvatica ‘Asplenifolia’ can grow in plant hardiness zone 4, minimum -20 °F. Potentially reaching 80 feet or more, this “Great Harvest” specimen was clearly an adolescent. The long, slender, deeply lobed leaves are reminiscent of fern fronds, thus the common name, fernleaf beech. Oval form and low branches are characteristic and make it an uncommon and pleasing choice for landscaping. The “give-away” for identification rests in the smooth, light grey bark characteristic of all beech trees.

Once established this tree has average water needs, but does not like heavy, poorly drained soils. While not the easiest tree to transplant, requiring careful watering at first, it will contribute years of beauty to the landscape. Receiving the Award of Garden Merit by the Royal Horticultural Society, this gives cooling shade and bird habitat. And, a wonderful companion to sit with while enjoying a cinnamon roll.

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