Helixes define the strange growth of the parasol beech, a tree destined never to grow tall.
The beech collection at the Arnold Arboretum is arguably one of the finest in the world and is formally recognized by the Plant Collections Network of the American Public Gardens Association. With more than 100 specimens representing eight species and numerous cultivars from around the Northern Hemisphere, the collection includes something for every lover of beech trees. But, there is nothing quite like a visit to a parasol beech—a twisted form of the European species (Fagus sylvatica)—and specifically to the most graceful of them all, accession 14599*A, right off Beech Path.
Unlike its “normal” brethren, this tree does not ascend to the sky. Its trunk and main leaders create breathtaking spirals, twists, and even loops where the tree has bumped into itself and self-grafted! The outermost branches are pendulous. Altogether, this growth creates a truly hemispherical tree.
In the autumn, standing under this canopy is akin to entering a domed medieval cathedral with magnificent (and ephemeral, in this case) stained glass windows (the leaves) filtering the light. Looking up at the winding, aged branches provides a sense of peace and isolation in a sea of trees in an urban oasis. In winter, the skeletal form becomes vivid with a dusting of snow.
This tree came to the Arboretum in 1888, a gift from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and a descendant of a twisted beech that originally grew in a forest in Remilly, France. Interestingly, the parasol beech can be found growing in several widely dispersed populations in France, Germany, and Sweden. Just imagine a forest of towering European beeches with a scattered magical understory of beautifully twisted mutant forms! These trees have not been bred, but rather are evidence of dame nature’s unending talent for creating mutant novelties or what used to be called “monstrosities.”
Early in the history of the Arnold Arboretum (founded in 1872), the first director, Charles Sprague Sargent, needed to begin the long-term conversion of an old and largely treeless farm into Harvard’s museum of trees. To accomplish this, Sargent arranged for plants to be sent from botanical gardens, arboreta, and major horticultural firms around the world. Over the first twenty years, the Arnold Arboretum received more than 900 accessions from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which was far and away the most prolific source. Sadly, only three other plants from this era of exchange with Kew remain: a bridalwreath spirea (Spiraea prunifolia, accession 3138), a hybrid maximus mockorange, (Philadelphus × maximus, accession 6601), and another parasol beech (accession 2420) that was received in 1885).
No individual tree is immortal. But, at the Arnold Arboretum, every effort is made to ensure the longest and healthiest lives for each of our botanical and horticultural guests. In the wild, parasol beeches can live for more than 300 years. Still, trees age, and a look under the canopy of this beech shows handmade bracing that helps support some of the ever-heavier pendulous shoots. Given that this tree is well into its second century of life on the grounds of the Arnold Arboretum, we have already begun to plan for a semblance of immortality. Over the past few decades, four new clones of this very tree (with more on the way) can now be found scattered on the grounds (accessions 405-80*A, 262-212*A, 253-80*A, 253-80*B), much smaller, but with all of the potential to match their peerless parent, a century from now.
Viewing this plant in-person? Look for these defining characteristics:
About Our Collection
Parasol beeches can be found growing in forests in Sweden, France, and Germany. It is unclear if each population of these magical trees evolved separately in each place or if ancient humans may have been intrigued with the form and moved them around.
The weeping forms of various tree species are likely to be the result of natural genetic mutations. The only genetic difference between a parasol European beech and a “normal” European beech may be a single mutation in a gene. The nature of these mutations remains unstudied and hence unknown.
During solar eclipses, the best place to be is under a weeping ‘Tortuosa’ beech. As the leaves flutter, they create the equivalent of hundreds of pinhole cameras that project images of the sun onto the ground and smooth bark of the tree.
When the tips of the ‘Tortuosa’ beech reach the ground, they can develop roots and new shoots. Once these clones are rooted, they can be separated from the mother plant and grown elsewhere.
The winter buds of beech trees are very distinctive, with lots of overlapping bud scales. They look like very small cigars.
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