Originally published in Castine Patriot, July 17, 2014
The copper beech
by Peter Cooperdock
Driving the winding roads of the peninsula yields many “viewscapes” to satisfy being here. Glimpses of the sea, fields of flowers, quaint houses, and even chaotic caches of clutter allow the drive an enjoyment not found in more populated areas. At one curve coming down the Castine Road, a magnificent colored tree greets the resident and visitor with the exclamation that this place holds something unique.
Of a color often associated with Japanese maples, its large, entire leaves ensure the viewer that this tree is not one of those. Continuing along the road, more glimpses of similar trees can be seen prior to descending to the sight of Hatch Cove. A peaceful stroll down Perkins Street toward the Wilson Museum reveals more examples of this intriguing tree.
The copper beech is another introduction from Europe. Commonly found throughout that part of the world, it is ideally suited to our humid, foggy climate. It has been grown ornamentally in this country for hundreds of years and was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, an avid gardener who planted them at his home at Monticello. The copper beech has been listed in American nursery catalogs since the 1820s.
The color is due to high concentrations of anthocyanin, a pigment commonly found in the tissues of the leaves. Chlorophyll is generally the dominant pigment in plants, producing the green color. As chlorophyll is more temperature sensitive than other pigments, other colors get expressed to produce the fall display. For the copper beech, it’s all through the summer as well. The color can vary from tree to tree based on the acidity of the soil in which it grows.
These trees mature within 30 years, faster than our native beech. They can live more than 200 years, producing the magnificent specimens found in Castine. When grown in the open, they can dominate the area with wide spreading branches that open its display for all to see. Like our native beech, copper beeches retain their dried leaves throughout the winter, slowly letting them go as the winds blow. These winter leaves blow across the snow and collect in our doorways as a reminder of warmer days to come.