Up at the Tree House: The Great Beech

Conservation // October 17, 2019

By Christina Moresi, Wissahickon Environmental Center

In 2006, I was new to teaching in the Wissahickon and learning the trails of Andorra. As I was shown the key trail sites– Andorra Meadow, Cucumber Meadow, The Great Beech – I was taken by it all, but especially by The Great Beech. It was the biggest tree that I had ever seen. Its history sparked my imagination about the land long ago, and how to connect children with it today.

The Great Beech’s existence dates back as far as the mid-nineteenth century. Theories have circulated for generations, however there is no known documentation of the exact planting date, origins, or structure—whether it is one multi-stemmed tree or five closely planted trees.

What we do know is that The Great Beech is a European Beech, Fagus sylvatica, and was planted between 1853 and 1862 by Richard Wistar as part of a larger beech planting for his anticipated estate. Wistar died before the estate was built, and the land transitioned many times over the next 157 years to Andorra Farm, Andorra Nursery, unused estate land, and, eventually, Fairmount Park. Through it all, The Great Beech stood strong, and grew.

In 2006, the grandeur of The Great Beech reached Champion status thanks to the Pennsylvania Forestry Association’s Champion Tree Program. With a circumference of 257 inches, a spread of 105 feet, and a height of 102.5 feet, The Great Beech’s measurements made it the largest European Beech tree in Pennsylvania, and the third largest tree in Philadelphia. (The largest, a katsura tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum, is at Morris Arboretum.)

As of 2017, when The Great Beech was reassessed with the preceding measurements, it still held its title. But 157 years has not been easy on our Champion, which is part of what makes it great. The Great Beech’s health has been quickly declining over the past few years. In any urban park or area, the stress of human use can take its toll. Around The Great Beech, soil has been compacted, roots trampled, and its trunk carved. It has been climbed on and spray painted. Heat, poor air quality, and disease may also be contributing to its decline.

A European Beech has the potential to live about 250 years, so what seems like an old tree, is actually in its youth. Thinking back to life in its early days, then to the years we spent visiting with kids, measuring it with our hugs and admiring its beauty, I’m sad that the next generation will miss out knowing The Great Beech.

To celebrate the life of this extraordinary tree, we invite you to stop by Sunday, October 27, from 1-3 p.m. to create art, see its modern life in photos, write love letters to the tree, and more.

Christina Moresi is an Environmental Education Planner at the Wissahickon Environmental Center.