Louis Raymond: Visit this Tree at the Arnold Arboretum Before the Snow Melts!

March 24, 2015

Now that this is officially Boston’s snowiest winter ever, it was high time to lace up my boots, zip on an extra layer or two, and head for the Arnold Arboretum. The roads of this 281-acre wonderland are kept cleared, and the grounds are open every day of the year. The destination? How about one of North America’s most eccentric trees which happens to be at its very best when the snow is the deepest.

After scooping out enough snow to confirm that, yup, we were headed in the right direction, we left the paving.

arnold arboretum beech path

The goal?  This century-old contorted beech.

arnold arboretum beech

Even among trees known for flashy mutants (think purple-leaved beeches, weeping beeches, columnar beeches, purple-leaved-and-weeping beeches) the contorted beech is at the head of the line.

Limbs writhe and spiral, each with a unique trajectory. The two largest limbs are creaky enough to be steadied with supports.

arnold arboretum beech

If two branches touch, over many years they literally stay in touch by merging. Below, a small porthole view formed by mergers of who-knows-how-many branches, who knows when.

arnold arboretum beech

Other limbs just corkscrew their way further and further to the sky.

arnold arboretum beech

Branches often reverse direction, and then reverse again, so it’s no surprise that contorted beeches don’t ever achieve much size.

louis raymond

The Arnold’s is the oldest and therefore the largest in North America, and it’s not even twenty feet tall. In contrast, a beech with normal habit could be seventy feet high and wide.

A snowy winter is the best season for this tree: When the leaves come out in spring, they hide most of the branches’ craziness. Snow shows off the beech’s fall leaves best, too. They release from the branches only reluctantly and, so, there are always a few more to top off each blizzard’s fresh layer.

arnold arboretum winter leaves

The tips of many of the branches eventually reach the ground. They sometimes take root, sending up fresh growth that becomes the next generation of the tree.

arnold arboretum

Decade-by-decade, one contorted beech could expand into a colony. Century-by-century, they become an ever-widening grove and millennium-by-millennium, they are a forest.

Even better, each of these daughter trees has a full lifespan, regardless that the parent tree might have already been a century old and more. Left safely the contorted beech is immortal.

Check out LouisThePlantGeek for the whole story on contorted beeches. This map of the Arnold Arboretum shows just where their collection of beeches is.

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