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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.

 
 
 
 

A Gardening Journal

Gold-leaved Weeping Beech

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Gold leaves and a pendulous habit:  Easy for a conifer but, with this one exception, impossible for a deciduous woody.  So, of course, this beech is essential, in addition to fabulous.

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Gold leaves and a pendulous habit:  Easy for a conifer but, with this one exception, impossible for a deciduous woody.  So, of course, this beech is essential, in addition to fabulous.

 

After years of hankering, this Spring I purchased a pair.

 

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As befitting a unique tree, only the most prominent location and respectful handling will do.  See below for all the tricks.

 

 

Here's how to grow this "ultimately-unusual" weeping beech:

 

Latin Name

Fagus sylvatica 'Aurea Pendula'

Common Name

Weeping Gold-leaved Beech

Family

Fagaceae, the Beech family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous tree.

Hardiness

Zones 5 - 9.

Habit

Upright; distinctly narrow.  Always smaller in both dimensions than a typical weeping beech, whose overall habit is (usually) the reverse: broader than tall. 

Rate of Growth

Slow to medium, but happy beeches grow much faster than you think.

Size in ten years

If growing free-range, eight to ten feet tall and only two to three feet wide.  With training (see below), these dimensions could differ substantially.  Potentially to forty-five feet tall but only nine to twelve feet wide.

Texture

In leaf, an irregular and unusually high-and-steep mound of foliage.  Out of leaf, the contrast of the stiffly-weeping and irregular branches arising from a central trunk or two of such determined verticality is extreme.  The tree is strikingly sculptural and thought-provoking. 

Grown for

its habit:  When in leaf, the overall form of an 'Aurea Pendula' beech looks like a haystack that Dr. Seuss might have drawn: Much too narrow, and so tall that the whole thing looks like it would collapse in a high wind or after a mild tremor.

 

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 weeping beech—especially a variety such as 'Aurea Pendula', where limbs seem to be either soaring skyward in all haste, or weeping to the ground, also in all haste—the potential for unique and almost whiplash contortions is, literally, unparalleled. 

 

its foliage:  Although Fagus sylvatica mutates easily and often, the direction is usually toward leaves that are darker than usual.  Mutations to lighter shades are very rare.  The nearest to 'Aurea Pendula' is 'Rohan Gold', a dense upright form with wavy leaves that are yellow-green.  The leaves of 'Zlatia' are also yellow-green, but only in Spring.  The foliage of 'Aurea Pendula' is the brightest by far.  It's a true yellow, at least in Spring; it greens up (or rather, tones down) significantly during the Summer.  As is usual with beeches, developing cultivars whose coloring withstands the heat and strong sunlight of Summer is a priority.  The species' natural tendencies toward mutation, and the ease of hybridization among cultivars, are normally both a help.  But with so few lighter-leaved cultivars, and beech's peculiar reticence to mutate toward lighter leaves, there's little to work with.  The Spring dispay of 'Aurea Pendula' is glorious by any standard, and it's all the more valuable, even poignantly so, because it's the only such display any beech currently offers. 

 

It's actually the only such display of any deciduous tree, for whom the combination of gold foliage and a weeping habit is, apparently, a surpremely difficult trick.  (There are gold-leaved weeping and even prostrate conifers aplenty.  Who knows why?)  That the only gold-leaved cultivar of a deciduous genus that's so uninterested in gold foliage in the first place is a weeper is a wonder.  It's as if the boy who had, heretofore, been so uncoordinated that he couldn't even throw overhand was suddenly able to strike out the professionals—while also joining the Olympic team in pole-vaulting.

 

its relatively compact footprint:  Even at maturity, 'Aurea Pendula' is a fraction the width of a full-size weeping beech.   

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

In Spring, the leaves of 'Aurea Pendula' beeches sing with color, and the name of their tune is "Yup, we really ARE yellow, aren't we!"  Dark burgundy and dark green are never-fail partners, and pink or rose, as usual, the clashing no-no's.  The tree is so remarkable that light colors of any hue would be rude competition.  By the time hot weather is the norm, the leaves have relinquished their yellow in favor of neutral green.  If the horticulture near your 'Aurea Pendula' beech veers sharply into pink and rose only after the Fourth of July, then, any clashing isn't the fault of the beech.

Partner plants

Weeping 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 tendriled with clematis.  If the beech's branches are permitted to grow to the ground, the dense shade and shallow roots of 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.  Even with a narrow weeper such as 'Aurea Pendula', it would be impossible to know if, someday, the tree might send out a limb that, before weeping, would prefer to cantilever right into what you thought would have been a perfect partner plant planted safely—so you thought—ten 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 your 'Aurea Pendula' beech happily growing in the midst of a lawn, courtyard, or even a small meadow—are partner plants practical.  Although 'Aurea Pendula' is a fraction of the mature bulk and dimension of a full-size weeping beech, it will still achieve a mounding monumentality.  Apart from the stunning display of Spring foliage, the beech is at its most head-spinning in the cold months, when the writhing of its 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 arborvitaes keep their limbs to the ground, and their canopies are 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 plants, 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 weeping beech.

 

'Aurea Pendula' brings yet another complication to your thinking, and it's one that, for a beech, is unprecedented:  The foliage is at risk of scorching if the tree receives sun that's too strong or too enduring.  Although beeches will grow and even thrive as a component of a forest, where shady habitat is the norm, beeches that are sited intentionally—in a garden or landscape, in other words—are always provided with full sun, which maximizes the speed and density of their growth, as well as the intensity of any colorful foliage.  'Aurea Pendula' is unique among beeches in requiring protection from day-long full sun. 

 

Unless you're siting the tree where nearby buildings can provide the needed shade—see "How to handle it: Another option—or two!", below—the tree's partner plants will need to do it.  So 'Aurea Pendula' can't, after all, be located where any beech would normally beg to be planted:  Alone in the middle of a huge and full-sun meadow.  By all means, do plant 'Aurea Pendula' in the meadow—but make sure it has enormous shade trees close enough at the south and the west of the beech that 'Aurea Pendula' is in dappled shade by noon.  This, in turn, means that the grove of tall bamboo or Thuja plicata, either of which prefers full sun, can be sited only to the north.  (Aesculus parviflora, however, is very pleased to grow in shade so, by all means, site it to the south or west of the 'Aurea Pendula': It will be in the shade of the same trees that are shading the beech.)

Where to use it in your garden

Unless you're training your 'Aurea Pendula' beech into a specific shape, in which case its overall size and dimensions are inherently under control, the species is only appropriate when grown stand-alone in large and open spaces.  Although the mature width of 'Aurea Pendula' will never be that of a full-size weeper, its growth is still 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 the maximum amount of sun—dappled or morning-only in the unique case of 'Aurea Pendula'—so weeping beeches can be effective when seen in-the-round, as in a meadow or the center of a big planting island in a courtyard.  Free-range growth is unique in configuration as well as overall size, so it's more honorable to plant a weeping beech where you've allowed for any possible expansiveness, no matter how quirky or off-center.  A planting area fifteen 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 ten feet on all sides.

 

Perhaps the best backdrop for an 'Aurea Pendula' beech would be a large and simple building, several stories tall and several times as wide as the beech could ever grow.  A full-size weeper would merit the expansive 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.  'Aurea Pendula' is more intimate in scale, and could be the centerpiece of the garden of a brownstone.  Remembering that 'Aurea Pendula' welcomes morning sun but needs dappled or even full shade in the afternoon, any building it partners with would need to be most massive to the south and west of the tree, and the least to the north and east.  The reverse proportions, which would create dark shade in the morning but unrelenting strong sun all afternoon, are likely to be fatal.

 

Yet another option for shade-wise siting would be, as I'm doing, to plant 'Aurea Pendula' by an east-facing wall, so that west and south sun will be eliminated outright.  The tree would look awkward if growing free-range right alongside a wall.  See "How to handle it: Another option—or two!" below for how to train it up and out across the wall, so the pairing of tree and wall is a true and engaging partnership, not just a merciful shade-reducing solution.

 

Wherever you plant 'Aurea Pendula', and however you train it and partner it with other horticulture, keep in mind that the tree's combination of foliage color and weeping habit is unique.  'Aurea Pendula' deserves the most important shade-appropriate location you can provide, not a location that's shade-wise but aesthetically uninspired or functionally inappropriate. 

Culture

Beeches normally thrive in any well-draining soil, although with such a precious tree as 'Aurea Pendula', which is almost never available in other than the starter size in my pictures, a soil rich in organic matter will encourage the fastest growth.

 

Uniquely for a beech, 'Aurea Pendula' requires partial shade all day, or full morning sun then partial or even full afternoon shade, if its leaves are to avoid scorching. 

 

See "How to handle it" as well as "Quirks and special cases" for tactics to give 'Aurea Pendula' the special circumstances it requires.

How to handle it: The Basics

Beeches aren't all that 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 weeping 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 beeches shade out almost any plants that attempt to grow beneath them; thank goodness, because the limbs of free-range 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.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Beeches can have such a monumental and powerful-limbed maturity that it's pleasantly counter-intuitive how much they enjoy (or at least tolerate) almost any amount of manipulation.  They accept pruning readily, and can be pruned into the ultimate in a deciduous hedging, as I'm creating out of over a hundred young plants of American beech.  They 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 my pair of purple beeches into an arch, my contorted beech into an overhead canopy to shade a large terrace, and my thread-leaf and variegated beeches into a Belgian fence.  I'm training each of my three 'Black Swan' beeches horizontally along its own ten-foot section of galvanized pipe that's roughly waist-high.  These three segments are separated by two six-foot gaps; the beeches will be trained to arch over each gap. 

 

'Aurea Pendula' could be trained in any of those configurations, provided that the siting brings the shade it requires.  I have relatively little morning-sun-only sites in my garden, fewer still with the required drainage, and only one with the required aesthetic prominence.  The northeast portion of the facade of my carriage house is appropriate on three counts.  I had already erected a frame of rebar extending the story-and-a-half up to the structure's eave, as the scaffolding for honeysuckle.  The honeysuckle can stay, at least on the frame's upper reaches, but I'll plant one 'Aurea Pendula' at each side pole of the frame and, over the years, train them upward and, eventually, across the rungs of the frame.  Their stiff weeping branches will descend inexorably.  In twenty years I'll have created a high and narrow waterfall of gold foliage.  Incredible!

 

Training beeches is easy as long as you align branches when they are still young enough to be flexible.  I usually use clothesline for my tying; loop a given length of line a couple of times around the branch and the training structure, so it's easy to winch the branch closer and yet still be able to complete the tie.  Each Spring, check all the ties; remove any that are no longer needed, and retie any that have become too tight.  Because my 'Aurea Pendula beeches are so small to start, I'll let them grow year or two before beginning training. 

 

Beech trees branch eagerly, and because each branch of a weeping 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

The trick with 'Aurea Pendula' is to provide as much sun as the tree can handle—who wouldn't want their golden weeping beech to become as big as possible, as quickly as possible?—while keeping to the safe and shady side of the "scorch horizon."  Siting against an east-facing wall is one option; siting with the high and dappled coverage of large shade trees to the south and west is another.  The amount of soil moisture is a third variable, because plants that are drought-stressed are more susceptible to scorching.  But you can't cure 'Aurea Pendula' of its tendency to scorch in too much sun by growing it in wet ground, or just by watering the hell out of it.  Like all beeches, 'Aurea Pendula' demands excellent drainage, and will fail if it has wet feet, especially when dormant in the cold months.

 

By all means, do provide better-than-usual soil to foster steady and eager growth.  But it's all the more necessary that such soil be even more well-drained than usual for a beech, because soils that are richer in organic matter are also more moisture-retentive.  The rule of "Never Plant a Beech on Level Ground" is more important than ever for 'Aurea Pendula'.

Downsides

'Aurea Pendula' needs carefully thought-through mitigation of the sun, which will usually severely limit your options in siting it. 

 

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 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, sometimes, at nurseries.

Propagation

By grafting.  Some forms, e.g., 'Tortuosa', also come true from seed, but they are exceptional.

Native habitat

Fagus sylvatica is native to Europe.  'Aurea Pendula' originated over a century ago.

 
 
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