Copper is the final shade of fall. Leaves that were once golden have tarnished, and reds and oranges have long ago quilted the ground. It is still fall, undeniably so, with temperatures hovering in jacket weather, but it’s now a latter-day version of the season, with muted tones that don’t feature as charismatically on postcards and guidebooks. Chief among the copper-colored plants at the Arboretum is a sprawling grove of American beech (Fagus grandifolia, accession 14585), which spreads across the southern flank of Bussey Hill, spanning the steep slope between Valley Road and Oak Path. The color of the leaves is pure and refined, as though burnished through regular polishing, and, as is often the case for American beeches, some of the leaves will doubtlessly hold firm, even when snow eventually shakes the branches.
While other Arboretum plants might compete for the copper medal—even a nearby Japanese beech (Fagus japonica, accession 5277*A), which was putting on a noteworthy show this year, with the luminous leaves feathered against a backdrop of hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis)—the scale of the American beech grove is unrivaled. A small footpath cuts through its center, and the path offers the kind of passage that should be taken slowly, thoughtfully, stopping to let whimsy take hold. In the center of the grove, the stems—spindly and smooth as a bone—appear innumerable. Many of the older stems were removed in the summer of 2018, as part of an effort to mitigate damage from beech bark disease, an insect-vectored fungal disease that threatened the Arboretum’s nationally accredited beech collection. But, in the grove, you would scarcely know that anything had been removed. American beeches can sprout from their roots, causing one tree to spread into a colony with multiple trunks and suckers. Even now, when some of the leaves have dropped free, you can scarcely see the road beneath. If the lighting is right, the leaves shimmer like fragments of glass, glowing like the windows at Sainte-Chapelle.
This grove was initially planted as a group of 23 seedlings (documented in the plant records with qualifiers A through W), which were collected by the Arboretum’s first propagator, Jackson Dawson. Dawson also deserves credit as the first plant collector on the Arboretum staff, given that he started collecting in 1872, the year the Arboretum was founded, and would continue to peruse the forests in eastern Massachusetts over the next four decades, sometimes venturing north to the White Mountains and coastal Maine, always returning with more seeds and plants. Dawson was described as someone capable of conjuring vigorous growth from a clipping that had been laid aside, forgotten for days in the pocket of a hunting jacket. The seedlings that formed this grove, however, could scarcely have arisen closer to their current location. According to the records, the plants were collected in 1885, from Bussey Woods—the local name for the estate that had become the Arboretum.
Now, in the spell of holiday meals and gatherings, it’s worth remembering that there are other reasons to collect American beeches. Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi author and advocate, referenced the culinary value of beechnuts in his novel Ogimawkwe Mitigwaki (Queen of the Woods), which was posthumously published in 1899. “‘Wawabigon odji’ (the deer-mouse) is outdone by no other animal in laying up its winter stores,” Pokagon wrote. “Its favorite food is the beechnut. It will lay up in some safe log or hollow tree from four to eight quarts.” He went on to recount how the Potawatomi, in northern Wisconsin, would, in turn, collect beechnuts directly from mice, spotting the stashes when snow covered the ground, creating a place mat on which the mice scattered fragments of shells as they began eating their winter supplies. Similar beechnut-gathering practices have been employed by other Native communities throughout the range of this widespread tree species, which spans much of the eastern United States, edging into the southeastern hem of Canada.
I couldn’t locate any lingering beechnuts on the branches of the Dawson grove, but perhaps, keeping with the longstanding practice of following the field mice, that was because I was searching in all the wrong places. I’ll be honest: although I’m constantly on the lookout for edible plants—persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.), the list goes on—I’ve never tasted a beechnut, and that’s not because I’m uninterested. Next time, winding on the path through the grove, I suppose that’s yet another reason to move a bit slower.