the beech code?

Sneak Peek

Beech make wonderful bonsai. American beech, however, is nowhere near as amenable to development as its European or Japanese counterparts. But that might not be the end of the story ….

The Beech Code?

I collected this American beech, Fagus grandifolia (grandifolia means large leaf – hurray!) in early 2019. This is the first photo I took of it, in April of 2019.

I rarely collect American beech because they present more than their fare share of challenges in making bonsai out of them. Here’s a partial list:

  • Large leaves that are hard to reduce in size
  • Slow growth, hence slow ramification
  • Sensivitity to summer heat
  • Surprising sensivitity to low temperatures (and by that I don’t mean below zero – the species ranges all the way to Canada, but I’ve had them die at 15F)

With that said, I was out with a bonsai friend hunting for American hornbeams, and spotted this beech at quite a distance. This is easy in winter, as they have the trademark persistent leaves that are a beautiful light golden color. This one had some things going for it: tapering trunk in a reasonable length (less than 20″); some branching already in place; and some very cool trunk damage that had healed (character!). My normal reticence went away, and the tree was soon in the back of my SUV.

I didn’t do anything but feed and water the tree in 2019. It did its part, getting an established root system going. It also produced some growth in the apex I could use to start building a crown.

A year after collection, we’ve now got an apex and the usual whopping big leaves. The latter wasn’t too worrisome – you can eventually get leaf size reduction even on American beech, and it’s not an early-stage technique you should be using anyway.

Here’s the January photo of this tree. It’s very important to take note of this photo – very important. What happens following this is pretty remarkable.


Now it’s April, and the tree is completely wired out and ready for its single round of growth for 2021. Not a bad looking tree. It did, by the way, sustain some damage during our big snow storm with the ice and very cold weather (some broken branching in the crown).

This is the first photo taken of this tree today. You may want to refer back to the photos above for comparison.

You can’t help but notice the foliar density and unexpected progress in leaf-size reduction. I have been more than amazed at how this tree has progressed in just the past month. I have had to repeatedly pinch what has turned out to be almost continual growth. But how did it happen?

I didn’t take a photo of this tree once the first flush of shoots had extended, the leaves unfurling and expanding to rather grandifolia proportions; I wish I had. But here’s what I did do. Something popped into my head one day when I was studying the tree with its new and luxuriant foliage: why not cut the leaves in half?

To be honest, the reason I did this is the tree responded to my shortening the new leader by pushing two previously dormant buds there while at the same time presenting a couple on the ends of lower branches. I wondered if I could prompt the tree to make yet more buds on other, lower branches. I was pleasantly surprised when I got fresh buds everywhere I cut the leaves in half.

Here’s a principle of trees to remember: they don’t care how many leaves they have; what they care about is the total amount of leaf surface area, because their survival is based on photosynthesis and this occurs in the leaves. Total leaf surface area is directly related to how well the photosynthesis goes. So the tree can have a few large leaves, or a lot of smaller leaves. This is one way we’re able to make bonsai look realistic, by way of leaf-size reduction.

So is this the Beech Code, working the new spring growth by cutting leaves and pinching new growth? I don’t know for sure, but you can bet it’s going to be my practice from now on. To be able to grow nice American beech bonsai is a really worthwhile goal for the American bonsai artist. They’re such lovely trees in nature; they should be on our benches.


Here’s the last shot for today. I wired up a new leader, thinned some foliage in the apex and – you guessed it – cut some more leaves in half.

I expect this tree to stop growing once the summer heat sets in. But by that time, I expect to have a presentable beech in only two years of work – an incredible achievement, to be honest. Next year it gets a bonsai pot, and I expect it will come even closer to a showable condition.

Let me know what you think.