Urban Tree Elegance: Copper Beech, with Jean Zimmerman

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.

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