In midwinter it is not uncommon to have intermittent mild days that tantalize us with reminders of spring. Walking through a park on a warm February day, we might even look to the trees for some confirmation that spring is around the corner—a swelling bud or hint of green, perhaps? Alas, all we’ll note are markers not of the season to come but of the season past: some branches retain from the fall a few straggling, brown leaves. In Boston parks, the only trees that do this are beeches and oaks—both in the same family: the Fagaceae. The botanical word for leaves that remain on trees well into or through the winter is marcescent (from the Latin marcere, meaning enfeebled or withered). Such papery leaves hold fast until the wind rips them free, or until the emerging bud of the spring leaf pushes them off. Scientists speculate that the abscission layer, which forms in most deciduous trees to cut leaves off in the fall, is delayed for some of the leaves of beeches, resulting in a characteristically half-dressed look. In the wild, American Beeches (Fagus grandifolia) form mature forest in parts of central New England alongside Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum). These forests are strikingly beautiful as the Beech often reproduces vegetatively, through sprouts from roots or from rooted branches. This can result in a mother tree surrounded by her offspring in a circle, or, if she is dead, a perfect circle of beech trees of uniform age—a fairy circle in the forest.
All but one of the beeches in our Parks, however, are cultivars of European Beech (Fagus sylvatica). There are some striking horticultural forms represented in the collection, including the Pendula cultivar, with weeping, sweeping limbs; the Rotundifolia, with dark blackish-green leaves and a beautiful, round canopy, and the Asplenifolia, or fern-leafed variety, with lacy cut leaf margins: and the Spaethiana,which holds its deep purple color longer and emerges in the spring with a rich burgundy color. It is fitting that the sole American Beech in our parks is found on the Boston Common, just north of the Frog Pond, as one looks toward Beacon Street.
The Friends of the Public Garden cares for 14 Beech trees in the Garden, some of which date back to the original plantings during the 1870s. These older specimens are special both because of their age and size, but also their placement—three of the oldest are near the Bagheera and Triton’s Baby’s fountains near the mid-block Charles Street crossing. One venerable specimen reaches out over the pathway and over the Bagheera fountain, with a large branch that has rooted in the bed beyond and is cabled to its multi-stemmed main trunk. This tree, which may be over 150 years old, is in its decline, but the Friends work seeks to prolong its lifespan. To do so, we may need to reduce the weight of the wood in the crown, since it has significant interior rot and is vulnerable to wind damage because of its weakened wood. Click here to learn more about load reduction pruning in the Public Garden, Boston Common, and Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
One striking feature of ornamental Beech trees is their bark, which is characteristically smooth and light grey, like an elephant’s skin. Their beautiful bark is unfortunately threatened by two major concerns: vandalism by humans, and a suite of fungal diseases. The Friends of the Public Garden works tirelessly on both of these issues. Together with the Parks Department of the City of Boston, the Friends strives to maintain these parks at the highest level of excellence, to inspire the public to love and respect these important public resources (and refrain from vandalizing them!) And most significantly, the Friends hires hard-working professionals who use the latest scientific practices of Integrated Pest Management to treat the beeches for fungal bark diseases, such as the phythoptera canker and nectria.
Across from the Hampshire House and Cheers, one finds a grove of Beech trees, planted in the 1980’s by two significant early Friends of the Public Garden, Polly Wakefield and Westy Lovejoy. Both woman were long-term members of the Board and Horticulture Committee. This cluster of trees, a testament to these two volunteers’ many years of service, is thriving thanks to the careful pruning, disease management, and judicious fertilizing the Friends has provided over the decades. I like to imagine that in 150 years a new generation of park lovers will look up at the marcescent leaves and wonder when spring will ever arrive.
Claire Corcoran is an ecologist and member of the Friends of the Public Garden Board of Directors. She is a self proclaimed “tree hugger” and dedicated advocate for greenspace in Boston and beyond. Claire lives in the South End of Boston with her husband and three children.