Goodbye to the beeches?

    In the nineteenth century the prevailing theory in garden design was that landscapes should be beautiful, and if they weren’t beautiful, they should be picturesque.

    This probably made more sense to people in the nineteenth century than it does today.

    I don’t know whether it qualifies as beautiful or picturesque, but one of the design features that became common in this period was to plant a wonderful specimen tree in the front yard of your mansion (a word that seems to have been used more loosely than it is now.) It seems that the tree for chosen for this application most often was the European Beech. Particularly favored were copper-leaved or weeping varieties.

    Beech trees can get humongous, and are easily spotted by their very smooth, pale grey bark. The bark wrinkles and sags a bit where the limbs join the trunk, which is why we always used to call them elephant trees. There is an American Beech as well, and the two varieties are almost identical in appearance. But the European Beech is more tolerant of pollution and was therefore planted extensively in the burgeoning communities in the Northwest  area of Philadelphia.

    Although in nature beech trees can live for centuries, in cultivation they often peter out around the age of 120. The beech in front of my house is probably exactly that old, and is beginning to die back. Driving around the neighborhoods, there are still many exemplary front yard beeches, but there are also a lot of stumps in naked front yards, until recently completely shaded by giant specimens.

    It’s not just Philadelphia. In Newport, Rhode Island, many of the beeches planted at the Gilded Age mansions are beginning to fail. When they go, more than shade will be lost. These trees are usually the last original plantings in the landscape, and are a living link to a time when our neighborhoods were brand new. If the beech in my yard ends up succumbing, I think I’ll replace it with another one, to keep the picturesque/beautiful ideal alive, hopefully for another 120 years.

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