One of the the Wave Hill Public Garden and Cultural Center copper beech “cousins,” this individual showing less coppery late summer foliage. Photo by Jean Zimmerman

Copper Beech (Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group)

By Jean Zimmerman, Council Board Member and Commercial and Consulting Arborist for SavATree

When I was growing up we gathered beneath “The Elephant Tree,” which stood on the overgrown lawn of an abandoned mansion. The massive local landmark, its knob-kneed trunk resembling nothing so much as the columnar legs of its namesake animal, offered a self-contained world. From the outside, long branches twisted sinuously from the crown to the ground, spreading outward like the spokes of an umbrella. Inside this protected space we found ethereal cathedral light and branches that were perfect for climbing. Kids hid there, gossiped there, made out there. The trunk was hashed with initials and hearts. We gave the tree its nickname, but the world of dendrology had a more scientific label, now known as Fagus sylvatica Atropurpurea Group.

The copper beech. Tree guru Michael Dirr chooses it as “one of my great plant loves,” and from childhood it has been one of mine, too.

Having been brought to America in the 1600s, the towering, always impressive European beech (Fagus sylvatica) tops out at a full 70 feet (21 m). The copper beech (Atropurpurea Group) shares the characteristics of the species but with distinct foliage color. While not a street tree, copper beech takes its place among landmarked gardens and properties that are part of the urban landscape around them.

Copper beech leaf. Photo by Michelle Sutton

The grand homes of Newport, Rhode Island are known for their beeches. Lyndhurst in Tarrytown, New York, the former estate of robber baron Jay Gould, boasts an imposing collection. Wave Hill, the public garden in New York City’s Riverdale section of the Bronx, displays two copper beeches that sit across a park lane from each other like kissing cousins. Their dense, broad crowns are clearly visible, even from a distance.

“We don’t know much about the beeches except that they were probably planted after 1890, when the property came under the same ownership,” says Louis Bauer, Director of Horticulture at Wave Hill. With an unparalleled view across the Hudson River to the Palisades, Wave Hill has a storied past, including notable occupants such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The latter said of the estate: “I believe we have the noblest roaring blasts here I have ever known on land; they sing their hoarse song through the big tree-tops with a splendid energy that thrills me and stirs me and uplifts me and makes me want to live always.”

The other Wave Hill copper beech “cousin,” which has not escaped graffiti. Photo by Jean Zimmerman

Copper might be a slight mischaracterization for the hue of the tree’s leaves, which can change over the course of a season from a reddish purple in spring to blackish purple by summer. The deciduous, simple leaf is elliptic and blunt, appearing wavy, with five to nine veins on each side. Each copper beech presents itself slightly differently in color and shape. When I visited Wave Hill’s copper beeches in late summer, they were really more full forest green with only a slight metallic tinge.

As for those “knees,” the older trunks have bulges and burls that are quite unlike any other tree, with a silvery grey bark. (Beech lover Dirr writes of “a beauty unmatched by the bark of other trees.”) Something about that bark begs for carved personal nomenclature. At Wave Hill, the trunk of one tree has been pretty well graffiti-gouged, while the other cousin is pristine.

The cascading habit of copper beech creates a magical world inside the canopy. Photo by Michelle Sutton

A mysterious ailment known as Beech Leaf Disease has begun to prey on Fagus. The damage starts with a dark staining of the leaves and leads to their shriveling and eventually tree death; so far it has been recorded in Ohio and Pennsylvania and parts of Ontario, Canada. Another affliction, Beech Bark Disease, caused by a sap-feeding scale and a fungus, has already killed 2.5 million beech trees. “Three on the north half of Wave Hill have succumbed to beech bark disease in the past fifteen years,” says Bauer.

Copper beech foliage and inconspicuous flowers. Photo by Michelle Sutton

For flowers, copper beech offers a small female cluster and a male cluster that hangs on a shorter stem than that of the American beech. The nut has long, angular sides and a deep brown color, encased in a bristly husk. Beech nuts can be consumed by deer and bears as well as by birds and rodents—and by humans, who have been known to roast and brew them in place of coffee. A nice place to drink a cup would be under the sweeping, twisted, copper-colored branches of an “Elephant Tree.” Ghost of Mark Twain, you are cordially invited.

Copper beech foliage and nuts. Photo Courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder

Atropurpurea Group Particulars

From Missouri Botanical Garden: Atropurpurea Group trees, commonly called copper beech and purple beech, basically include a variety of different purple-leaved European beech trees ranging in leaf color from pale purple with a hint of green to bronze purple to dark purple approaching black. Atropurpurea Group foliage usually turns copper-red in fall. Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’, Fagus sylvatica f. purpurea and Fagus sylvatica ‘Atropunicea’ are basically synonyms which are included in the Atropurpurea Group designation.

Copper beeches have variable shape and foliage color. Author Jean Zimmerman says, “When I visited Wave Hill’s copper beeches in late summer, they were really more full forest green with only a slight metallic tinge.” Photo by Jean Zimmerman