European Beech vs. American Beech: What’s the Difference?

Written by Cammi Morgan
Published: November 7, 2022
© PJ Photography/Shutterstock.com
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With all of their similarities in appearance and growing habits, you may be wondering what the differences are in the European Beech vs. American beech tree. Since the European beech tree is naturalized in the native range of the American beech, it’s useful to be able to distinguish these two species from one another.

In this guide, we’ll discuss how these trees are botanically classified, what their physical characteristics are, what their native ranges and ideal growing conditions are, and the many ways in which humans benefit from them. So, read on to learn more!

European Beech vs. American Beech: A Quick Look

European BeechAmerican Beech
Plant ClassificationFagus sylvatica Fagus grandifolia
Plant CharacteristicsLarge, deciduous tree. Reaches about 50-75 feet tall with a 40-50-foot spread at maturity. Growth pattern is oval to round with a dense branching pattern. Bark has a lovely smooth, light gray appearance. Leaves are simple, glossy, and ovate-slightly elliptic in shape. Sparsely and shallowly serrated along the margin. Leaves tends to be 2-4 inches long at maturity.Large, deciduous tree. Reaches about 50-75 feet tall with a 50-70-foot spread at maturity. Growth pattern is round and symmetrical. Bark is smooth and grey. Leaves are ovate-elliptic shaped. They are simple and glossy with prominent veins and finely serrated margins. Leaves tend to be 4-5 inches long at maturity.
Native Range and HabitatsNative to Central and Western Europe. Widely distributed and naturalized across the US and Canada. Thrives in highly shaded, dense hardwood forests.Native range Eastern North America. Commonly grows in moist, mixed-hardwood forests among oaks, hickories, and sugar maples.
Ideal Growing ConditionsPrefers to grow in loose, moist, well-draining, deep, and slightly alkaline soil. Can thrive in full to partial shade. Young trees especially can benefit from filtered sun light. Not drought tolerant.Prefers to grow in moist, well-draining, deep, acidic soil. Can thrive in full sun to partial shade. Young trees especially can benefit from filtered sun light. Not drought tolerant.
Ecological NichesForest-dwelling birds, rodents, deer, and bears use various parts of the tree as a food source. Including nuts, bark, twigs, and leaves. Birds, bats, and rodents use the large tree for shelter, nesting, concealment, and rest.Forest-dwelling birds, rodents, deer, and bears use various parts of the tree as a food source. Including nuts, bark, twigs, and leaves. Birds, bats, and rodents use the large tree for shelter, nesting, concealment, and rest.
Human UsesNuts can be eaten raw or roasted and can be added into flour mixes. A great shade or specimen tree. Common uses of lumber include furniture, tools, flooring, instruments, cabinetry, and boat building.
Nuts can be eaten raw or roasted and can be added into flour mixes. Wonderful as shade or ornamental tree. Popular uses of lumber include furniture, firewood, flooring, plywood, tools, and railroad ties.

European Beech vs. American Beech: Plant Classification

Both of these lovely hardwood, deciduous trees belong to the Fagus subgenera of beech trees. European beech is classified as Fagus sylvatica and American beech is classified as Fagus grandifolia. 10 to 13 beech tree species are split between two distinct subgenera, Fagus and EnglerianaFagus beech trees are native to either North America or temperate Europe while beech species belonging to the Engleriana subgenera are native to East Asia. Beech trees belong to the Fagaceae family of over 927 species of flowering plants that include other hardwood trees like oaks and chestnuts.

Plant Characteristics

As deciduous trees, both the European beech and the American beech lose their leaves in the fall and leaf back out in the Spring. They tend to grow to about the same height at maturity of about 50-80 feet. However, the American beech often has a wider canopy spread of 40-80 feet, compared to the European beech spread of 40-50 feet at maturity.

American beech tree in the fall
Both European and American beech (pictured) leaves change colors in the fall.

©true nature/Shutterstock.com

Generally, these two species of beech trees share notably similar leaf characteristics with a couple of distinctions. For instance, both species produce simple, ovate-elliptic-shaped, glossy leaves with prominent veins that grow in an alternating pattern along the stems. While both the European beech and the American beech have fine serrations along the margins of their leaves, the American beech leaf is much more densely and sharply serrated than the leaf of the European beech.

The American beech also produces leaves that are a bit longer than its European relative. At maturity, the American beech leaves tend to reach 4-5 inches in length compared to the European beech leaves which usually reach 2-4 inches long.

Both of these beech species feature lovely, smooth, gray bark.

Native Range and Habitats

As their names suggest, the European beech is native across temperate Europe while the American beech tree’s native range stretches along Eastern North America. 16th and 17th-century European settlers brought European beech tree seeds along with them to North America, and the tree has since naturalized across much of Eastern North America. Both trees thrive in moist, well-draining mixed-hardwood forests and are commonly found growing in mountain coves and well-draining lowlands.

European Beech vs. American Beech: Ideal Growing Conditions

Regarding their ideal growing conditions, both the European beech and the American beech prefer loose, deep, well-draining, and moist soil. They don’t fare well in compacted, boggy soil or during drought conditions. With their large, expansive, and deep root systems, these beech species require soil that is aerated and deep enough to accommodate the growth of their roots. They thrive in full sun to partial shade, but initially, as young trees, they do well in shaded conditions as they grow under the dense canopies of older beech trees.

European beech tree
European beech trees, such as those pictured, make for great shade.

©PJ Photography/Shutterstock.com

Ecological Niches

As large, long-lived, nut-producing hardwood trees, both the European beech and the American beech tree are important organisms within the forest ecosystem. Throughout the seasons, forest-dwelling mammals and birds rely on various parts of these beech trees for food, shelter, nesting, and safety. In the fall and winter months, deer eat the bark, twigs, leaves, and nuts of beech trees. Even mammals as large as bears munch on beech nuts during the fall months as they pack on pounds for winter hibernation. With their wide-spread, dense canopies, both of these beech species serve as crucial spaces of rest and shelter for an array of small mammals and birds.

Human Uses

Historically, people have used the American beech and the European beech for food, shelter, fuel, and carpentry. The nuts of both species are edible with the American beech nut generally favored for its sweeter taste. Traditionally, the European beech nut has also been processed into flour that people would mix with their wheat flour in times of scarcity.

Today, the American beech nut is still particularly popular for its sweet taste. The lumber of both trees is still commonly used in various crafts and industries such as for use in cabinetry, flooring, tool making, boat building, and furniture making. The dense, sturdy wood of the American beech is particularly useful in making structural plywood and railroad ties. American beech is also a popular hardwood for use in fireplaces and wood stoves due to its density and long burn time.

Frequently used as ornamental and shade trees, the American beech and European beech are commonly found in large yards that can accommodate their growth requirements. The American beech is particularly favored as a lovely shade tree with its wide, dense, and symmetrical canopy.

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European beech tree
European beech tree
© PJ Photography/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Cam Morgan is a queer forest dweller writing about animals, plants, and ecological-centered living from the hollers of Southeast Appalachia where she lives off-grid in her self-built cabin. She shares 20 forested acres with her wonderful partners and pals, an ever-growing pack of rescue dogs, and all the plants and critters who call these woods home.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. NC State University, Available here: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/fagus/
  2. A-Z-animals.com, Available here: https://a-z-animals.com/blog/discover-the-different-types-of-oak-trees/
  3. University of Minnesota, Available here: https://trees.umn.edu/american-beech-fagus-grandifolia
  4. Yale, Available here: https://naturewalk.yale.edu/trees/fagaceae/fagus-sylvatica/european-beech-95