Tree to 40(–50) m, 1(–1.8) m dbh. Bark silvery-grey. Young shoots reddish-brown, pubescent. Leaves elliptic to obovate, 6.5–15.5 x 4–9 cm, with 8–13 pairs of veins, margins entire or slightly undulate, broadly cuneate or rounded at base, mid-green above, pale green below, glabrous on both sides except along midvein and primary veins beneath which are long silky-pilose; petiole pubescent, 0.6–1.2 cm; stipules caducous, to 3.5 mm. Perianth of male flowers divided for no more than one third of its length. Cupule c. 2.5 cm, scales are of two kinds, the upper ones linear-oblong; lower ones spathulate, 5–15 × 2–4 mm. Peduncles pubescent, 2.5–3.5 cm. Nuts 1.2–2.2 cm (Davis 1984; Tutin et al. (eds) 1993; Cullen et al. (eds) 2011).
Distribution Armenia Caucasus mountains Azerbaijan Caucasus mountains Bulgaria Balkan and Rhodope mountains Georgia Caucasus mountains and in mountain ranges adjacent to Turkey Greece Rhodope mountains Iran Alborz mountains Russia Caucasus mountains Turkey Common in the Black Sea regions, from the Caucasus west to the Sea of Marmara; scattered in the Amanos mountains.
Habitat From 200 to 2200 m asl, forming pure forests, or associated with other Tertiary forest species including Ostrya carpinifolia, Corylus colurna, and associating with conifers at higher altitudes. Where it meets European Beech, Oriental Beech appears to prefer drier and warmer sites than F. sylvatica.
USDA Hardiness Zone 4-5
RHS Hardiness Rating H7
Conservation status Least concern (LC)
Taxonomic note The Oriental Beech has oscillated in the past between being treated as a species in its own right or a subspecies of European Beech, however the various major floras published in the late 20th century – Flora Iranica, Flora of Turkey, Flora Europaea – all afford Oriental Beech species status. A 2004 paper (Vettori et al. 2004) analysed DNA from multiple populations of both species and identified ‘distinct groups corresponding to taxa such as F. sylvatica, F. moesiaca, F. taurica, and F. orientalis’, supporting the views of earlier authors. Interestingly, the same study also suggests that F. orientalis is ancestral to F. sylvatica. The names F. moesiaca (or F. × moesiaca) and F. taurica (or F. × taurica) have come into use to cover forms intermediate between the Oriental and European Beeches, such is the propensity for the two to hybridise where their ranges meet in extreme south east Europe and in the Crimea. The World Checklist and Bibliography of Fagales (Govaerts & Frodin 1998) synonymises the first of these names with the latter, and clarifies the correct use of the latter: F. × taurica Popl.
The distinctions between Oriental Beech Fagus orientalis, and the European Beech F. sylvatica, are subtle. Few of the morphological distinctions cited in early literature have significant merit as they tend to apply to material widely distributed in cultivation, but representing a very narrow sampling of the diversity that exists in wild populations. Various anecdotal distinctions seem not to hold sway either, for example that F. orientalis is faster growing in youth (Krüssmann 1984), a trait which every grower of trees knows can be influenced by provenance and site selection. So far as stature and effect in the designed landscape is concerned there is little benefit to planting Oriental rather than European Beech, although some of the large-leaved forms common in cultivation are quite beautiful, and in terms of climate change resilience it may be that F. orientalis is better adapted to hotter and drier conditions so trees of known provenance may be of value in the future.
Flora Europaea (Tutin et al. 1993) and the Flora of Turkey (Davis 1984) both suggest that the perianth of male flowers is divided almost to the base in F. sylvatica, but for not more than one third of its length in F. orientalis. The most consistently cited difference appears to be between the fruit cups, the bristles of which are all of one type, long, tapering and (initially) erect in F. sylvatica, but which in F. orientalis are of two types, the upper ones as in F. sylvatica but the lower ones variously described as ‘wide’, ‘flattened’, or ‘spathulate’ (Davis 1984; Krüssmann 1985). This is also a character of the Japanese F. crenata (Bean 1981a) so care must be taken not to jump to any hasty conclusions, but F. orientalis can generally be distinguished from F. crenata by its densely pubescent peduncle and midvein on the underside of the leaf blade, and by its longer peduncle. In the absence of fruits the leaves of F. orientalis are, generally, larger and ‘tougher’ than those of F. sylvatica, and the leaf blade is usually broadest below the middle, but the hybrid, F. × taurica, is most like F. orientalis in leaf and most like F. sylvatica in fruit, so again, caution should be exercised in identification.
It is generally remarked that where the two species meet – in the Crimea and the Balkan peninsula – the more heat-tolerant F. orientalis occurs at lower altitudes such as in valleys, while F. sylvatica is found enjoying cooler conditions higher up (Kandemir & Kaya 2009). F. orientalis is an important timber tree in many parts of its large range, especially from Turkey eastward to Iran (Davis 1984; Kandemir & Kaya 2009). Its use as an ornamental in these regions is poorly documented in Western literature, while in European cultivation it has never come close to matching the ubiquity of F. sylvatica. Only one cultivar, ‘Iskander’ has been commercialised from F. orientalis, although it may prove in time that certain selections of F. sylvatica such as ‘Latifolia’ and ‘Zlatia’ actually belong here or to F. × taurica. Nevertheless Oriental Beech crops up in some unlikely places – on Boswall Avenue and a few nearby streets in north Edinburgh it was planted as a street tree in the past, with a very pleasing result. These trees are gradually being removed as they either succumb to the rigours of old age or outgrow their welcome, but sadly none of the imagination shown in selecting such an interesting subject is reflected in their modern-day replacements (pers. obs.).
F. orientalis has achieved 29 m height in cultivation at Birr Castle, Co Offaly, Ireland (0.88 m dbh) and at Battleby House in Perthshire, Scotland (0.66 m dbh). Other notable UK specimens include: Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, Hampshire (25 m × 0.58 m); Trent College, Long Eaton, Derbyshire (25 m × 0.67 m); Cannon Hill Park, Edgbaston (23 m × 0.73 m); Batsford Arboretum, Gloucestershire (21 m × 0.6 m). The largest girthed tree in the United Kingdom is in a private garden in Cornwall, measuring 18 m × 0.97 m (Tree Register 2018).
There are two records of F. orientalis approaching 30 m height in the Netherlands, at Amstenrade Castle (28 m) and at the Arboretum de Dreijen (27 m), and a tree of 1.37 m dbh (17 m height) grows at Hattem, also in the Netherlands (monumentaltrees.com 2019). No references have been found to other notable specimens growing in continental Europe, but there are surely many dozens of individuals scattered through the older and more notable collections. It is cultivated in North America, but is inevitably greatly outnumbered here by plantings of F. sylvatica and the native F. grandifolia (Sternberg 2004).
It is still occasionally collected, for example there are two vigorous young trees growing at Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh from TDI 86, (the accompanying herbarium specimen confirms its identity), and it was collected in the Russian Caucasus on a joint trip by Edinburgh, Kew and the Howick Arboretum in 2013. Young trees raised from the Russian collections, under numbers CJLU 106 and 131, have recently been planted at Benmore Botanic Garden in Argyll.
This fastigiate clone of Oriental Beech is, at least in youth, similar to some F. sylvatica cultivars, notably ‘Dawyck’ and ‘Green Obelisk’. It is described as differing in its sturdier branch structure, helping it to hold its shape better in maturity, and in its larger, healthier looking foliage which is said to be resistant to wooly aphid. The dead leaves are mostly retained on the tree through winter. (Hatch 2015, bluebellnursery.com 2019).
It is widely available in Europe and North America, where the greater heat tolerance of F. orientalis over F. sylvatica will no doubt be an increasingly important attribute in some regions.