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Copper Beech - a hedge for all seasons

Copper Beech

Copper beech hedging is one of the most elegant hedges available to the British gardener. It has all the qualities of green beech hedging; it grows almost anywhere where there are reasonable light levels and where the ground is not waterlogged.  Beech is a true British native and as such it is happy growing across the majority of the conditions found in the British Isles. I used to wonder how leaves that are not green can photosynthesise. The answer is simply that they are, actually, green as well and human eyesight cannot see the different colours present in the foliage. So copper beech leaves, even when they are pink, work just as well as green beech leaves.

Like green beech, its copper cousin clips beautifully. As a young plant beech grows surprisingly quickly, but as each branch is clipped, smaller branches sprout from the 3 or 4 buds beneath the cut. Every time the hedge is cut, this process repeats and an enormous network of branches and sub-branches is built up. This structure of course requires nourishment and support and so as it gets larger a beech hedge devotes an increasing proportion of its energy to maintenance. That means that it grows less as it ages and develops. This deceleration makes it the perfect hedge plant as it gets to the size you require relatively quickly and thereafter grows relatively slowly. You can get away with clipping a mature beech hedge once a year, and you will keep it looking very neat indeed with just 2 clips. That puts beech hedging in pretty much the same maintenance category as yew and box.

Copper Beech is also forgiving of mistakes. Unlike the vast majority of evergreen hedge plants, beech regrows from old wood. This means that if you cut to deeply back into the foliage and expose the inside of the hedge, new shoots will appear and within a very few months the hole will have repaired itself.

This ability to regrow is extremely useful when restoring an old beech hedge. Over a period of 3 years you make 3 brutal prunings. The first is to cut one of the vertical faces of the hedge almost back to the trunks at the centre of the hedge. Do this in the winter of the first year. The hedge will look awful, but you will see new growth appearing by the following May. The 2nd cut, which takes place the following winter, is to remove the top of the hedge and cut it down to about 9 inches below where you would like it's finished height to be. Again it will look awful and again new growth will appear the following May. The third cut, in the winter of the third year, is to remove the other vertical face of the hedge in the same way you did the first. By spreading such radical pruning over 3 years, the shock to the plants is not severe and they recover and regrow beautifully. I have seen a beech hedge that measured 4 metres tall by three metres wide reduced using this method to one that was about 1.7 metres tall by less than one metre from one side to the other.

Copper Beech is obviously different from green in the matter of leaf colour. In other respects, growth rate, habit, soil preferences, disease resistance and so on they are to all intents and purposes, identical. The young foliage starts life almost pink. It is translucent and a copper beech hedge, in May with the early morning or late evening sun behind it is a thing of wonder. But what really differentiates copper beech from green is the almost continuous change of foliage colour that takes place through the year. The early pink of late spring darkens to a true copper in summer and then as autumn approaches it carries on changing, through increasingly deep shades of purple to the darkest green before the foliage dies. At this point the word you are scrambling for is marcescence. It describes the peculiar characteristic that members of the beech family have that means that they retain their dead foliage through the winter. Whilst there are good survival reasons for them doing this, a useful side-effect is that it means your copper beech hedge will also add a note of cheer to your garden with its soft, crisp golden brown leaves from late October to the beginning of April

Unlike green beech, it is this range of colour that copper beech displays for nearly ten or eleven months out of twelve makes it one of the most consistently remarkable sights you can find in any garden throughout the year. From formal to informal and short to tall there is no other hedge plant like it.

5 thoughts on “Copper Beech - a hedge for all seasons”

  • Dave Nicholson 16th May 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Very interesting article - Thanks. Dave

    Reply
  • Jennifer Giddings
    Jennifer Giddings 16th May 2014 at 6:20 pm

    Hi Julian
    I planted a bare-rooted copper beach hedge last October. All the specimens are doing very well. How do I look after this new hedge?

    Reply
    • Ashridge Nurseries
      Ashridge Nurseries 19th May 2014 at 5:02 pm

      Hi Jennifer,
      From the winter after planting onwards, your young hedge should be trimmed very lightly once a year, until it is mature.
      When it is fully grown, you should clip Copper Beech hedging in late summer to make it hold its autumn leaves right through the winter.
      The ideal day for a trim is overcast with rain on the way; full sun on the freshly cut leaves can cause the edges to brown and plants always like to have a drink after a trim.

      Copper Beech is a very tough hedge plant that shouldn't need special attention once it has established. If you didn't use a mulch fabric, it is beneficial to mulch around the base of the hedge each year with well rotted manure or compost.
      Hope this helps.

      Reply
  • Virginia Thornton

    Hi Julian, I've enjoyed your blog on this magnificent specimen. I write you from the US as I am interested in replacing a copper beech we lost to storms. Our "tree" had a trunk that was 5 FEET in diameter. The beech was easily 80-90 feet tall. We live on a farm that was historically traced to Jubal Early's brother, a friend of Thomas Jefferson. It appears that these copper beech were brought over from the UK and planted as a sign of wealth and stature. We were heartbroken when this giant came down in a harsh storm. We've had an arborist tend to it in previous years. Now all that remains is a great stump, which I will not rid of until I find another tree!! I would appreciate a reference in the US where I could find another spectacular tree. Sincerely, Virginia Thornton

    Reply
    • Julian

      Lovely to hear we are so widely read - thank you very much. A large tree coming down is always a sad thing - we lost a huge beech in our garden three years ago and it still looks as if it has its front teeth missing...

      I am afraid I cannot give you a US reference for large trees - it is a specialised market place and we have no knowledge of American growers and sellers. I am sorry.

      What I would say however is that you would be well advised to deal with the stump as soon as possible. Grind it out or burn it out, but do not leave it as it is. Dead tree stumps act as a magnet for honey fungus (lating: armillaria). You can see our note on it at . One you have it, there is no real way to eradicate it and it can lay waste to the most beautiful trees and plants in a terrifyingly short space of time. So do not be sentimental - deal with the stump...

      Julian

      Reply
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