Great Beech

2006 photo of the Great Beech, taken long before anyone knew the tree might be dying. Check out all the graffiti carved into the tree's bark.

The Great Beech, a five-trunked monster of a tree, has graced its corner of the Andorra Natural Area since the Civil War – maybe even earlier – and has been visited by thousands of Philadelphians, may of whom carved their initials in the elephantine tree’s smooth gray bark. It’s so big it has its own name – few trees receive personal names-- and even now its own party.

But that party is bittersweet, as the Great Beech, the largest European beech in all of Pennsylvania and the third largest tree in all of Philadelphia, is dying…

So the Wissahickon Environmental Center is holding a celebration of the life of the Great Beech this Saturday, Nov. 9, from 1-3 p.m. It’s also Love Your Park Day in Philadelphia, so the morning will be given over to loving the Wissahickon, and the afternoon to celebrating the beech.

“We’ve asked people to send us photos of the Great Beech,” Trish Fries, the environmental educator who directs the center, told me. “We’re assembling an art gallery of photos of the beech in its better days.” Because two large limbs of the tree have recently died, “we’re cutting up the dead limbs. So anyone who wants will get a piece of the tree. Kids will also be given tree cookies,” she continued, referring to round cross-sections of branches, “ones with silhouettes of the beech branded into the wood. We’ve also saved a slab of the tree to hopefully make a bench out of one day.”

“The tree seemed fine in 2017 when it was remeasured to assess its state champion status,” Trish continued. And it kept its status as a champion. “We only noticed it dying just last year, and half of it is dead already. And the leaves on the rest of it this summer have not looked healthy. The tree declined really quickly.” While the city’s arborist has examined the tree, there seems little they can do to stop the erosion of the tree’s health.

That corner of the Wissahickon has gone through a lot of different uses over the years. The tree was most likely planted by Richard Wistar, which is an important family with innumerable connections across Philadelphia, sometime between 1853 and 1862 when Wistar was planning an estate there. But he died before the project was finished, and the land went through several uses thereafter, for a very long time serving as the Andorra Nursery. In fact the Tree House, the nature center that is the heart of the Wissahickon Environmental Center, was built circa 1900 by the propagationist of the nursery.

Its five large trunks have long been a source of mystery. Was it one tree planted that soon grew into a five-trunked monster, or was it five separate trees planted too closely together? “I suspect it was one tree,” said Trish, “because of the history of it. I don't think anybody,” especially someone planting out a large estate, “would have planted five trees together. I suspect they would have planted something big in size.”

The Great Beech is in many ways the beating heart of Andorra. Trish told me that when one of the center’s volunteers saw a giant limb of the beech fall over a recent weekend, the volunteer told everyone, “it’s probably time for me to retire.” When the Great Beech dies, it’s time to move on.

“It’s definitely sad,” Trish said. “We are going to leave it up-- there are no plans to cut it down. But it is going to leave a gaping hole in the forest. That trunk is still significant – and massive – so knowing what the canopy looked like will be sad.”

The tree used to be the logo for the Tree House, especially back in the day when Sioux Baldwin (the first naturalist who founded the Tree House) ran the center. Trish, who has been directing the site for 17 years now, is resurrecting that logo, using it again for the center for a bit, and branding the tree cookies they hand out with the image.

Looking to the future, the center has chosen the Great Beech’s successor. “We’ve already designated another beech nearby, one of its progeny, to be the next Great Beech.” The beech is dying; long live the beech!

And head over to the Wissahickon Environmental Center on Saturday at 1:00 to celebrate the life and death of a remarkable tree.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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