Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Sweetheart Tree

“They say there’s a tree in the forest
A tree that will give you a sign
Come along with me to the sweetheart tree
Come and carve your name next to mine…”

Out here JOTOLR, we have lots of Beech trees. I love them with their big old moss-covered elephant feet anchored into the ground as close to water as they can get, without being in it. I don’t know what it is that attracts me, except that they are so big, so bold in declaring their space, so solid. They’re the Sumo wrestlers of the tree world. Roundly powerful. Seemingly indestructible.

Sadly I know of one Beech tree, though, that was felled by a pair of lovers. I went looking for it the other day, hoping to photograph the monument, but found only remnants, no tree. I remember the heart drawn around the initials “CF loves SM” carved many years ago into the Beech’s somewhat forgiving bark. It was the thing to do back then. But love’s unintended consequences probably cut the tree’s life short. Forty years have come and gone, the tree is no longer there, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the love that prompted the carving, hasn’t fled—or at least, expired, as well. It’s common knowledge, now, that carving one’s initials on the tree sets up the conditions for premature death.
Yes, admittedly, many trees still stand with initials emblazoned on their skin, but in the broadest sense, carving does endanger the health of the tree.

I know…the surface is so tempting. Fagus grandifolia with its smooth bark invites lovestruck carvers. But breaking the “seal’ of that outer bark opens the tree’s barriers to insects which will take full advantage of the opening and begin to burrow into the tree. Bacteria can also begin their work as the tree is weakened. Finally, if the carving is large enough and deep enough, water flow up and down the trunk is compromised and this, too, hastens the tree’s demise. I know it doesn’t seem especially romantic to carve a sign and hang it on the tree, but the longevity of the tree will be greatly improved.

Beech nuts were a surprise for me when I moved to the Appalachians. It was just one more sign of the bountiful hardwood forest that sustains the wildlife in this region and adds to our pleasure. Little triangular nuts, (called cupules) three to a shell, burst with the flavor of …well…beechnuts! Remember Beechnut Gum? Another name for the flavor, of course, is wintergreen. Beechnut baby food? Beechnut Chewing Tobacco? All brought about by the humble flavor of the fruit produced by this magnificent tree.

The Beech Nut Nutrition Corporation has a long and intriguing history (well worth a read) which dates back to 1890. Beech Nut Nutrition Corporation history It all started when five residents of Canajoharie, New York decided to market the home-smoked hams of Raymond and Walter Lipe's father, Ephraim, which were renowned in the small Mohawk Valley farming community for their unique nutty flavor. That “nutty flavor” was the beechnut and Beech wood. The tale is too long and convoluted for this blog, but do go to the website, scroll down until you come to the history, and browse the story. How we got all the way from smoked hams to chewing gum and then baby food is fascinating! Many of you will remember the Beech Nut Baby Food apple juice fiasco, and it’s interesting to see how many re-inventions of itself the company has been able to accomplish and still survive from 1890 until today. It’s a remarkable tale of American ingenuity and hard-scrabble moxie. And it all began with the Beech Tree. 

Beech Nut Chewing tobacco is another story altogether. As far as I can determine, the tobacco has nothing at all to do with Beech Nut Nutrition Corp.. Let me know if you find  otherwise.

The Beech’s leaves often stay attached all winter long. As they dry, they curl against themselves and rustle with the slightest breeze—the brushes of forest music.  People often call it a "copper beech" for the color of the tree's winter garb.  In the spring, the new leaves are an irridescent chartreuse that simply takes your breath away!

Beech is hard to split, but burns well. According to one expert it “burns brightly for many hours with calm flames.” As a wood for carving it has many faces. Some call it unruly; others recommend carving it green; most carvers extol the finished product as being very rewarding; its a hard wood, fairly straight-grained. Reminds some of maple, even oak. Carvers say that you need to pay attention to keeping your tools sharpened as you work since the Beech will dull them in no time. On one website I visited, a man was in the process of carving a 300 year old Beech burl. That, I would like to have seen! Here at this generous website, you can find a list of Beech’s properties: http://www.connectedlines.com/wood/wood11.htm

Finally, let’s talk kitchens. Plastic or wood for cutting boards? When I was selling Pampered Chef kitchen tools (for the past eight years prior to retiring) my sales pitch was that the plastic cutting boards we sold, were much more sanitary than the wooden ones. Turns out that’s not necessarily so. If you are wondering whether your wooden board or a plastic one is best for your kitchen, go to  http://www.reluctantgourmet.com/cutting_board.htm And the best of all cutting boards? (some say) End-grain Beech. Price?  Reduced from $127 to $88!

So, there you have it! Another marvelous product of our Appalachian hardwood forest---and a real sweetheart of a tree!


  1. I never knew so much about the beech tree . It is the most common tree around here and most of the field hedges are beech. Can you eat the nuts as they are or do they have to be processed in some way?

  2. Beech trees are magnificent! In fact, to me, all the hardwoods are sensational. When I lived in New Mexico for a short time I so missed the eastern hardwoods. We need to protect and appreciate our hardwood heritage -- your post highlights one group of hardwoods -- told with such compassion for them. Also, the breadboard issue, I have always believed that the wood breadboards were the most sanitary -- don't know where I got the idea -- maybe from my mother? I have a small collection of wood breadboards, both old and new, and I use every one of them on a regular basis and thank the tree that made it every time I use one.-- barbara

  3. P.S. Your new header photo is great! -- barbara