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or just about any other place where concrete consumes

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NEW Trips to Take!

Myrtle's easy when the conditions are right.

 
 
 
 

NEW Plants to Try!

Louis tries to capture the exact words to describe the fleeting but deep pleasures to be found in these Summer-into-Autumn incredibles.

 
 
 
 

New Gardening to Do!

Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Contorted Beech

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Lally columns prop up the branches of this contorted beech.  Without their guidance, the limbs of this rare cultivar would grow much lower.  Contorted beeches usually develop a haystack profile: lumpy and full to the ground. 

 

I wanted to elevate the canopy of this one to keep it high enough to shade the dining terrace.  That's the dining table at the right.   I could have planted a regular weeping beech, whose canopy would be plenty high.  But the tree is big overall.  Too big.  And besides, then I wouldn't be growing a tree-on-stilts.

 

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A contorted beech is the Goldilocks solution:  Not too big and—thanks to the lally columns—not too small either.

 

As the canopy extends farther, I can move the lally columns outward to keep pace so that the lengthening limbs are always supported.  Beech wood is very strong, and can hold a long span without drooping.

 

With the support of the lallies, the limbs can grow much farther outward than they ever could on their own.  They don't have to put as much energy into being self-supporting; instead of strength, they can focus on length.

 

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In another decade, the beech limbs will have extended clear across the terrace, putting the dining table entirely in the shade.

 

 

Here's how to grow this tree, the ultimate in weirdness:


Latin Name

Fagus sylvatica 'Tortuosa'

Common Name

Contorted Beech / Parasol Beech

Family

Fagaceae, the Beech family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Full to the ground, like a squat and corkscrewed weeping beech.  A very short trunk soon divides into thick writhing limbs.  Secondary branches arch outward but soon become pendulous, lengthening irregularly but eventually reaching the ground if not trained or pruned.  The common name of parasol beech would only be accurate if your parasol were macabre in look, and was built so massively that it could shelter you from lashings of concrete blocks instead of rain drops. 

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

If growing free-range, ten to fifteen feet tall and as wide or even a bit wider.  Each contorted beech is truly an individual, so ultimate height and width can vary.  Potentially, twenty-five to forty feet tall; typically wider than tall.

Texture

In leaf, an irregularly-mounded haystack of foliage.  Out of leaf, complexly branching and sculptural.  Striking and almost perplexing.   

Grown for

its habit:  In leaf, contorted beeches are similar in look to—but, after many years, half-again as large as—the much more frequently encountered Camperdown elm, Ulmus glabra 'Camperdownii': A broad haystack irregularly ringed with shorter "side-stacks." 

 

Out of leaf, the branching of contorted beeches is revealed to be at an entirely other level—or even world—of radical bizarreness.  Limbs can change direction time and again, sometimes swooping up for a time only to switch, temporarily, to a lateral or a downward trajectory.  (Each contorted beech sets its own terms; mine is much less contorted than some.)  Branches always reserve the right to make a quick left-hand turn—or even a U-turn.  Some limbs seem interested mostly in noodling around, lengthening only inadvertently as they curl. 

 

As analysts say about the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future performance.  For the life of any contorted beech, the ultimate geometry of any one limb is always unknown.  After decades of corkscrewing around, a long-time "noodler" might switch to swooping.  This decade's downward arc of one limb might be followed by a new decade of growth so tightly-turned and looped as to be calligraphic. 

 

Beech wood is unusually strong, capable of cantilevering for a surprising distance without sagging.  At any thickness, the wood has remarkable span-strength, which is why beech wood is favored by carpenters for chair arms and legs.  Beech wood is also used for piano hammers.  When that wood is the growth of a contorted beech, with oft-changing and never-ending randomness, the potential for unique and almost disturbing contortions is, literally, unparalleled.     

Flowering season

Spring: Beech flowers, however, aren't showy, although the subsequent nuts—loved by squirrels and tasty enough to have given their name to the Beech Nut cereal line—have a modestly-showy prickly covering.

Color combinations


The leaves of contorted beech trees are green, and neither their flowers nor their nuts bring notable color.  So while the trees couldn't provide a stronger statement in branching and overall form, coloristically they are neutral.

Partner plants


Contorted beeches are so extraordinary in form that their partners need to be beyond mere ornament if they're not to seem frivolous at best, a desecration at worst.  No beech needs to be swagged with a rambler rose or infested with the tendrils of clematis.  If permitted to grow to the ground, the dense shade and shallow roots of contorted beeches rule out groundcover underplantings, too.  The tree's mysterious branching and irregular (as well as ultimately unknown) overall shape make it a challenge to partner with plants even though they may be only vaguely nearby.  It would be impossible to know if, someday, the tree would send a limb cantilevering right into what you thought would have been a perfect partner plant planted safely—so you thought—fifteen or even twenty feet away.  Would you cut that limb off?  Better to celebrate its startling individuality by removing whatever partner plant it has started to crowd.

 

Only if you're able to operate on a larger scale—with the contorted beech happily growing in a meadow of an acre or more—are partner plants practical.  The mounding monumentality of the beech is at its most head-spinning in the cold months, when the writhing of the branches isn't softened by foliage.  Conifers would provide evergreen interest when the beech is leafless, and also a welcome contrast in texture and overall shape.  The beech's geometry could scarcely be more exceptional, so don't add still more complexity in the conifers.  Giant arborvitae keep their limbs to the ground, and their canopy is dense enough that you don't usually see their limbs; each becomes an immense but simple cone of feathery green foliage.  A trio of such Thuja plicata, planted twenty feet apart from one another—and at an overall distance of fifty feet or more from the beech—would be a combination to savor for generations. 

 

Similarly, a large grove of the tallest species of bamboo that's hardy where you garden would be an effective counterpart.  It's evergreen whereas the beech is deciduous; uniform in a simple form (many similar feathery and tall canes, growing closely together in a grove) whereas the beech is a concatination of crazy quirks. 

 

The usual large-scale gesture of a mounding spreading shrub—sumac, say, or bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora—would be good in its uniformity but repetitive or even competitive in form.  Worse, it will lose that competition.  No other mounding plant looks anything but diminished in the company of a contorted beech. 

Where to use it in your garden

Unless you're training your contorted beech into a specific shape—onto a very sturdy pergola frame or, as I am, just by propping individual limbs up on lally columns—the species is only appropriate when grown stand-alone in otherwise large and open spaces.  Growth is too unpredictable to use the tree as the terminus of a narrow vista:  What if the tree took a fancy to growing more to one side than the other?

 

Growth is full to the ground along the entire perimeter if the tree receives full sun, so contorted beeches can be effective when seen in-the-round, as in a large meadow or the center of a really big planting island in an immense courtyard.  Free-range growth is unique in configuration as well as overall size, so it's more honorable to plant a contorted beech where you've allowed for any possible expansiveness, no matter how quirky or off-center.  A planting area thirty feet across would be the minimum for the tree itself, but to ensure full sun all around, and the breathing room its sui generis shape deserves, allow another twenty feet on all sides.

 

Perhaps the best backdrop for a contorted beech would be a large and simple building, several stories tall and several times as wide as the beech could ever grow.  A brick building of a university, civic, or corporate campus, say, with one or a very few windows placed to reveal the beech to the interior, and to array with the beech when seen as an overall grouping from outside.     

Culture

Full sun in any well-draining soil.

How to handle it: The Basics

Beeches aren't picky about soil—decent is good enough—but they are fanatics about drainage.  The rule of thumb is Never Plant a Beech on Level Ground.  In other words, be sure that surface water can quickly drain away from the plant even if this means planting it on a slope of only inches, or on a broad but low mound.

 

If you have the room for a contorted beech's full-to-the-ground habit, you need do nothing more than plant it and allow it to burgeon.  Open areas will usually be grass, and they'd be kept open by regular mowing.  Weeping and contorted beeches shade out almost any plants that attempt to grow beneath them; thank goodness, because the limbs of free-range contorted beeches are often so close to the ground that access for mowing would be impossible.  You need only mow the grass that's still outside the beech's slowly-expanding canopy.

 

Beeches can have such a monumental and powerful-limbed maturity that it's pleasantly counter-intuitive how much they enjoy (or at least tolerate) any amount of pruning and training.  Beeches train with surprising ease, too, because the young growth is very flexible; the mature growth is so strong and durable that the older trained individual can hold its geometric shape almost without support. 

 

I'm training a pair of purple beeches into an arch; my thread-leaf and variegated beeches into a Belgian fence.  The training of my "parasol" beech is simpler, at least conceptually:  I want the parasol to span a much wider area to one side, large enough and high enough to provide roomy coverage for a dining table for ten. 

 

To do that, I'm taking advantage of beech wood's combination of unusual span-strength and relative flexibility in youth.  The main limbs have been jacked up with lally columns, and as their branches continue to expand and explore, selected ones will be supported and encouraged in their outward journey by additional lally columns.  As old wood matures and thickens, the inner lally columns can be removed.

 

At present, the limbs rest on a short block of wood with a hole in its bottom for the tip of the lally.  I look forward to commissioning a carpenter to route those blocks into saddles, into which the beech limbs can rest more securely.  The lallies need yearly adjustment:  Retying the blocks (or saddles) to the limbs—I just use cotton-wrapped clothesline—so ties don't become too tight or too worn-out.  Moving this or that lally farther out as the canopy extends.  Raising this or that lally; they're each two-part, with a bolt that slips into pre-drilled holes to adjust how much the one section projects beyond the other.  For finer adjustment, there's a large screw at the top.  It anchors into the block of wood that cradles the branch.  


I need to enlarge the beech's canopy just to one side; at the other, I don't need any canopy at all.  Branches that attempt to grow to that side are cut off anytime I get the urge.  

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Beech trees branch eagerly, and because each branch of a contorted beech seems to have a mind of its own, it's often the case that they don't combine to form the ideal overall configuration.  Don't hesitate to have a zen moment with the tree every year or so, with an eye to pruning any branches whose particular weirdness isn't harmonizing with the whole.  

Quirks or special cases

None.

Downsides

As long as they get the sun and drainage they require, beeches are unusually self-reliant and disease-free.

Variants

Fagus sylvatica is available in an ever-widening circle of cultivars.  Leaves can be any number of shades of purple, or chartreuse or even yellow, or green, or variegated.  Leaf shapes can be round, thread-like, lacy-tipped, pointed, or contorted.  Mature sizes range from shrubby mounds to monumental creatures as big as any mansion.  Habits can be wide and upright, narrow and tall, low and spreading, medium-sized and mounding, or massively weeping (either widely or narrowing).  And your choice can be across several characteristics:  A purple-leaved thread-leaf beech?  (Indeed!  See it here.)  A yellow-leaved weeper?  (I'll be planting a pair of those in Spring of 2012.)  A purple-leaved dwarf?  The choices only increase. 

 

Fagus grandifolia, in pointed contrast, has never shown any interest in being anything other than green-leaved and broadly upright.  Its leaves are several times as big as those of F. sylvatica so it's worth growing even if your other beech is "just" the green-leaved F. sylvatica.  Like F. sylvatica, it is also happy to be clipped into an incredible hedge.

Availability

On-line and at nurseries.

Propagation

By grafting as well as by seed.  In Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and France there are naturalized groves of contorted beeches, little forests of unique, writhing specimens.

Native habitat

Fagus sylvatica is native to Europe.  'Tortuosa' was a spontaneous mutation and has never been anything but rare; there are fewer than 1,500 older specimens.

 
 
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