Beech bark is more like skin than bark. At least one writer has described the trunk of this tree as looking like an elephant leg – providing a very descriptive mind picture for anyone wishing to describe the beech’s smoothish gray look. Elephants have wrinkled knee patches and other “saggy-baggy” parts, of course, but when it comes to color and general texture this is a very apt description. During the naked season this is the feature that helps the American Beech stand out when in company of rough-barked maples and oaks.
Just to be complete, I’ll mention that leaves are another winter feature of cold season beech trees. They, like many oaks (to which they are related), often retain their bleached dead leaves well into the season (see below). When these brittle remnants chatter in the cold wind, they are giving voice to the species. While some beeches may be verbally putting a finger up to their dry lips to say “Shh,” others are certainly hissing disapproval. They are reminding us that their bark is not a slateboard for graffitti expression. Unfortunately there are few mature beech trees living in our public places that haven’t been given this kind of “initial treatment” (for another example see here).
Bark carving is not necessarily fatal to a tree but it can provide an entry point for fungus and disease organisms. There are dozens of decay agents just waiting for a way to gain access to the living portion of the beech tree. In addition to this threat there is a Beech Bark Disease going around. These risks alone should be reason enough not to do it. It’s not worth killing a potentially majestic tree, capable of living well over 200 years, just for the sake of a teenage infatuation! For the most part, however, bark carving is more of a visual problem than a physical danger to the tree. The fact that most of these so-called signature trees are large-trunked individuals with well healed alphabet scars is testament to their resilience.
Beech bark is carvable because it exists as a thin parchment-like layer. Most tree bark consists of dead material that cracks and splits as the underlying living layer expands. Beech bark forms a thin living layer which stretches evenly as the tree increases it’s woody girth. The actual dead portion of the bark flakes off like so much dry skin. When letters are cut into the bark the tree is forced to create a layer of protective scar tissue called “wound cork.” Corky scars were originally intended by the Beech Gods to form around natural graffiti damage such as bear claw marks and wind damage. Fortunately, they serve well against un-natural marks as well.
The only good thing about beech tree graffiti is that it tends to be of a romantic nature. For the most part it consists of such heart felt sentiments as “Darlene Luvs Vaughn” or hearts with “J.M. + S.C.” inside. Some carvings are simple minded efforts of folks like “Chuck.” A date often accompanies these initials. For instance, the aforesaid “Chuck” carved his name into a tree at Secor Metropark (Toledo, Ohio) on September 16, 1979 (see below). In the intervening 30 years since inscribing his great work of literature, Chuck’s letters have smoothed and widened.
The oldest beech bark carving I could actually read dated to the early 1960’s. I’ve seen oddly shaped scars that were once probably initials but were reduced to meaningless corky blobs -they might have said something like “D. Boone kilt a bar” or something like that but there was no way of knowing. If left unmolested, beeches eventually render written words into abstract designs. This is a good thing. I’d bet that most of these carvings probably represented passing fancies anyway. “J.M.” probably ended up marrying “S.S” or “B.K” instead of “S.C.” How could he have known that “S.C.” was a tree-hugger who dumped him right after finding out that he took a knife to her favorite beech tree!