Beech is common throughout the hardwood areas of PEI but is rapidly being killed or deformed by the beech canker. It grows up to 60 feet with a diameter of 18 inches. The trunk is usually short, often crooked and breaks up near the ground into a dense, massive crown of wide-spreading tough and flexible branches. It is usually found on rich bottom lands and moist, well drained slopes and ridges. It is sometimes found in pure stands but more often is mixed with our other native hardwoods.
Many recorders indicated that beech was among the principal trees of the forest with descriptions of “great abundance”, “super abundant”, “abounds in all parts of the island”, to name a few. It was described as being so abundant as to constitute extensive forests in many areas of the island. Early descriptions say that beech was a “handsome forest tree” and a “noble” tree up to 3 feet in diameter and a “majestic height”. It was one of the few trees of the time that was noted for it’s aesthetics. Most describers indicate that it is generally smaller than black (yellow) birch. It was believed at the time that “beech lands”, or where beech predominated, were second best lands for cultivation, as it was an indication of dry soil. Beech forests were seen as easily cleared for agriculture. Beech Stumps were able to be removed after 4 to seven years of rot. Beech mast was observed to be produced in vast quantities in certain years. It was believed that the vole “plaques” that occasionally affected the island settlers were a result of heavy mast production the year before. As far as usefulness, Beech was described as being equal to English oak in strength and durability and was heavily used in ship building for parts of the ship that were constantly wet. It was also used for turners and cabinet-makers. However, it was most often used as firewood, for which no other wood surpassed it.
The records show that Beech was once the dominant tree of the island’s hardwood forests and its presence contributed much to the character of those forests. However, because beech trees were an indicator of good agricultural soil, the land it occupied was espically susceptible to land clearance, and as well, much of what remained in woodlots in farming areas were probably cut and burned for fuel. The final blow to the beech forests that survived to the end of the nineteenth century was the beech canker, a fungal disease that arrived on the island in the early twentieth century. We can thus only imagine the large “noble” beech trees that once comprised much of the island’s hardwood forests. If any tree is deserving of the title of “provincial tree” of Prince Edward Island it is surely the beech.