Culturally and Economically Important Nontimber Forest Products of Northern Maine
American Beech, Fagus americana
Other Names: Hêtre (French), mihihqimus (Maliseet), suwo'musi (Mi’kmaq)
American beech is a vital food source for a variety of wildlife in northern Maine. Beech is one of the few nut producing species occuring naturally in the region. Much of the beech population in northern Maine has been affected by beech bark disease, which infects and kills larger trees of nut-producing age.
Physical Description: American beech is a medium to large sized tree with a rounded crown reaching heights of 70 feet in Maine. Healthy trees of any age have smooth gray bark. Beeches have slender branches and long (up to ¾ inch), thin, pointy buds. Leathery leaves are arranged alternately on branches are 3-5 inches longhave acutely pointed tips and sharply toothed margins. Dead beech leaves often remain on tree branches throughout the winter. Pairs of beechnuts are contained within a spiny husk called an involucre. The nuts themselves are brown, shiny, and triangular. Beech can sprout from the roots, and clonal stands are common.
Habitat: While beech trees exist in a variety of soil and forest types, they do best in rich, upland soil. Interviewees mention finding beeches on upland ridges. In northern Maine, beeches can be found in pure or mixed hardwood stands.
Uses: Beechnuts are collected and enjoyed by many in the fall.
Preparation: Depending on the time of harvest, the spiny husks of beechnuts will be open, and the nuts relatively easy to remove. Be forewarned: the spines are prickly. Some interviewees eat beechnuts raw, while others prefer to roast and salt them.
When to harvest: Beechnuts begin to ripen in late August and can be harvested into October. One gatherer offered this tip for harvesting beechnuts:
"If you find trees that are putting out nuts in a certain year, spread a sheet underneath it. And let them fall on that rather than trying to pick them up out of the duff."
Oftentimes, beechnut harvest coincides with other fall-time activities. For instance, some interviewees who cut beech for firewood simply harvests nuts from easy-to-reach felled trees. A land manager we interviewed noted that hunters will often seek out beech ridges because they know that deer will be there. Hunters often end up collecting nuts as they wait.
Several interviewees commented on the cyclical nature of beechnut production, which results in varying harvest size from one year to the next. One interviewee noted that beech trees infected with beech bark disease seemed to produce mast more often than healthy trees:
" was a wonderful year for beechnuts...I found that the unhealthy beech [trees] produce a prodigious amount of mast compared to [a] healthy stand. A healthy stand may only bear one in eight years here, where an unhealthy stand is going to bear whenever the maple trees bear. They’re cyclical, it’s really interesting, and they will bring themselves into sync."
Tips for Sustainable Harvesting/Management: Do not cut healthy beech trees that appear to be resistant to or unaffected by beech bark disease. When harvesting beechnuts, take only what you need, considering the many types of wildlife that depend on this food source.
Photo by Michelle Baumflek
Species information reference: 15
Last Modified: 01/13/2011