Copper or purple beech

Hêtre commun 'Purpurea'

Fagus sylvatica 'Purpurea'Fagaceae (beech family)

Origin: Europe (cultivated variety)


Copper beech has purple foliage, smooth grey bark, shiny twigs and long narrow buds.

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The glossy purple leaves are oval with wavy margins.

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Male flowers are borne in dangling round clusters while the prickly female flowers are usually single.

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Fruit is a prickly husk containing 2 to 3 triangular nuts.

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European beech, from which this cultivar was developed, grows to 18 m (60'), but may reach 30 m (100'). The crown has dense foliage.

It usually has a forking trunk with low-spreading branches.

Twisted roots sit just below the soil and may become exposed.

Bark is distinctively smooth and grey.

Twigs are smooth and zig-zagged with long, narrow, sharp-pointed brown buds that are about 2.5 cm (1") long.

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The smooth glossy leaves are a dark coppery-purple that is often tinged with dark green.

Leaves are broadly oval, up to 10 cm (4") long, with a pointed tip, and 5 to 9 pairs of straight veins that extend to the wavy margins.

Clusters of early leaves on short shoots are arranged alternately on the branch as are single leaves borne later in the season on new long shoots.

Leaves may remain on the tree in winter.

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Male and female flowers are borne separately on the same tree. Clusters of male (pollen) flowers dangle on long reddish stalks.

Female flowers are dark red, hairy and borne singly in the leaf axils.

Flowers emerge with the leaves in spring.

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Fruit is a prickly husk, up to 2.5 cm (1") long, on a hairy stem.

Inside the husk are 2 to 3 triangular, edible nuts, each about 1.5 cm (5/8") long.

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The cultivar

This purple-leaved cultivar of European beech is one of many that are prized for their ornamental landscape value. Copper beech has been cultivated in Europe for centuries.

Derivation of names

The genus name, Fagus, refers to beeches, from the Greek word fagein, meaning to eat, a reference to the tree's edible fruits. The species name, sylvaticacomes from the Latin word sylva, for forest. The varietal name 'Purpurea' describes this tree's purple leaves.

Related species

Though easily distinguished in summer by its purple foliage, this and other cultivars of European beech is sometimes confused with American beech beech (Fagus grandifolia). The leaves of European beech and its cultivars have 5 to 9 pairs of veins, compared with the 9 to 14 pairs of veins in American beech. In winter, European beeches can be distinguished from American beech by their rougher bark and stout forked trunks.

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Copper beech IN TORONTO

Copper beech's place in Toronto's urban forest

Because of its large size copper beech is a rare street tree, but is more common in parks, cemeteries, and golf courses. There is a large, impressive specimen (see photo above) growing next to the chapel at St. James' Cemetery & Crematorium that was planted by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) on his visit to Canada in 1919.

Landscape value and potential for home planting

Cooper beech's low-hanging branches and shallow spreading roots make it a poor choice for small residential lots. It is better suited to park-like settings with ample space where its shape and foliage create a colourful spectacle.

Copper beech grows best in moist, well-drained acidic soils.

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WHERE CAN I SEE Copper beech?

Links to maps at Canadian Tree Tours:

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