Virginia’s Capitol Christmas Tree, 2019

Each year, a live Virginia-grown tree is selected and harvested by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) to serve as the Christmas tree on display at Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond. The annual Christmas trees are donated from tree farmers across state; this year, the tree selected was a roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce, donated by Helen Braunworth and Helen’s daughter and son-in-law Cindy and Wayne Crickenberger from Friendly Forest Farm – a certified Tree Farm in Augusta County. The tree is donated in honor of Helen and her late husband William “Bill” Braunworth.

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The roughly 20-foot Colorado blue spruce before harvest.

Trees have historically been donated from tree farms in different regions of the state, but finding the right tree usually comes down to the tree farmers working with their local forester. Patti Nylander is a senior area forester in VDOF’s Western Region. Patti has developed a close working relationship with the Braunworth/Crickenberger family, and when it came time to identify the 2019 tree, Patti reached out to Cindy and Wayne to tour their properties in search of the perfect specimen.

Chris Thomsen (regional forester) says it may be easy to underestimate the relationships between foresters and landowners, but foresters are an essential contact for tree farmers and forest landowners; foresters are key players in supporting forest economy and management in our commonwealth. It’s this relationship that gave Patti the access and knowledge to find the right tree on the Friendly Forest Farm property – a substantial Colorado blue spruce that was likely planted more than 20 years ago.

On November 25, a harvest team assembled on the Braunworth property in Augusta County. The team consisted of Patti Nylander, Chris Thomsen, Brad Carrico (deputy regional forester) and Cole Young (forest technician). Wayne Crickenberger was tasked with felling the tree, with his wife Cindy and the VDOF staff there for preparations and logistics.

The process of cutting, wrapping and transporting a tree of this size is no simple task; the team had to plan their approach and prepare supplies in advance. First, the team unfurled a tarp and cut baling rope that would be used to wrap the tree, similarly to how a Christmas tree would be baled before being loaded onto someone’s car, except this tree was 12 to 15 feet wide!

Next, Wayne used a chainsaw to clear away the dead, low branches on the spruce. Then two smaller trees that blocked access to the selected tree were removed. WHSV reporter John Hood was on site reporting on the tree harvest and was allowed to take the smaller “Christmas tree” to the WHSV office.

 

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John Hood posing with the small Christmas tree.

 

Wayne cut the tree, with Brad’s strategic guidance to ensure the tree fell appropriately onto the tarp and rope for baling. Once the tree was felled, the team worked quickly to wrap the tree.

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Wayne Crickenberger baling the tree.

 

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Patti Nylander (senior area forester) and Brad Carrico (deputy regional forester) baling the tree.

Wayne expertly navigated a tractor to carry the tree to the driveway, where VDOF’s flatbed truck was waiting. The tree was lifted and positioned on the truck bed and secured for the eventual long journey to Richmond.

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Wayne Crickenberger driving the tractor.
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Patti Nylander, Brad Carrico, Wayne Crickenberger and Cindy Crickenberger loading the tree onto the truck.

The tree will be housed in a garage at the Augusta Forestry Center in Crimora, Virginia, until December 2, when it will be delivered by flatbed to Richmond. Once it arrives there, a crew will lift the tree with a crane and set it in place on the portico at the Capitol building in preparation for a tree lighting ceremony with Governor Northam on December 5, which the Braunworth/Crickenberger family plans to attend. Stay tuned for photo updates!

Friendly Forest Farm is one of three tree farms owned by Helen Braunworth in Augusta County. Bill Braunworth was a dedicated tree farmer for more than 60 years; according to the family, Bill was responsible for hundreds of acres of planted trees and active forest and tree farm management in three states – New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Bill was recognized as a strong advocate for forest landowners and active forest management. He worked to demonstrate and facilitate sustainable forestry practices, soil conservation and water quality improvement on his own property and on public lands when the opportunity allowed.

Though the family no longer sells Christmas trees, the legacy of the farms stands strong; the properties are still treed with seedlings planted by Bill, and the family finds great importance in keeping the land in forest and out of development. Bill’s son-in-law Wayne believes he’d be delighted to know that a tree from his farm would stand at the Capitol.

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Wayne and Cindy Crickenberger.

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), there are nearly 500 farms across Virginia where Christmas trees are grown. In fact, Virginia is the seventh leading state in terms of total Christmas trees harvested. The most common types of trees sold as Christmas trees in Virginia include balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, noble fir, Scotch pine, Virginia pine and white pine. The Christmas tree industry is a strong contributor to our agricultural economy, with annual sales of Virginia Christmas trees around $10 million. This industry, built around important holiday traditions, is an opportunity to support Virginian agricultural businesses.

Real trees are also an opportunity to support sustainable business; Virginia-grown trees are renewable and recyclable (unlike artificial trees) and growers typically plant two to three seedlings for every tree that is cut.

VDACS says that the supply for real Christmas trees is a little tight this year, but no one needs to worry about walking away empty handed – there is a real Christmas tree for everyone in 2019.

Some of the information in this post was sourced from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and from personal correspondence from the Braunworth/Crickenberger family to VDOF and the media in November, 2019.

American Chestnut Harvest at Lesesne State Forest

Chestnut trees have all but disappeared from the landscape; the Virginia Department of Forestry recently had a rare opportunity to harvest pure American chestnut wood.


The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) maintains a chestnut research project at Lesesne State Forest in Nelson County, VA. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once a common deciduous tree in many eastern North American forests and was valued for its nuts, lumber products and firewood. However, the chestnut blight fungus (Endothia parasitica) introduced in the early 20th century spread throughout the natural range of chestnut, killing virtually all chestnut trees by mid-century.

Research conducted at sites like Lesesne State Forest contributes to the development of chestnut tree varieties that are genetically resistant to the blight; these resistant trees are developed through a complex backcrossing program in which American chestnut trees are crossed with Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) which are resistant to the blight. Through backcrossing, research foresters are collectively developing chestnut trees that are 15/16th American in genetic makeup and also have high blight resistance. (Read more about American chestnut research from the American Chestnut Foundation.) Research shows promise, but success is still years away.

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Pictured: Bill Perry (area forester) and Charlie Becker (utilization and marketing manager)

On a portion of the research plots in the state forest, several small stands of pure American chestnut (Castanea dentata) exist; because of the blight that has impacted chestnut trees in North America, it is incredibly rare to find specimens that are 100% American chestnut and not a hybrid with Chinese chestnut. Other plots within the forest contain hybrid varieties of chestnut trees.

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Charlie Becker saws fallen chestnut logs. 

When several of the American chestnut trees started to die earlier this year, VDOF decided to harvest the lumber so as not to miss this rare opportunity to obtain pure chestnut wood. Charlie Becker (utilization & marketing manager) was motivated to ensure the trees will not go to waste. He said, “While some people may just see great firewood with these logs (which would be a fine use), we know there is a unique opportunity here for more research and special projects. You just don’t get the chance to harvest pure American chestnut now.”

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On October 29, a team of VDOF staff performed a harvest of three American chestnut trees and two different hybrid chestnut specimens and recovered several fallen logs of unknown hybridity. The harvest team consisted of Charlie Becker, Bill Perry (area forester) on the chainsaw and bulldozer, Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist) and Chris Cox (utilization project developer). Together, the team fell the trees, cut them into logs and labeled each specimen according to its plot of origin.

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Bill Perry saws the harvested logs. 

Bill Perry mused on the advancements in technology in the decades since American chestnuts had been regularly harvested. While the harvest crew this October relied on chainsaws and heavy equipment to harvest and sort the timber, harvest technology would likely have been more primitive the last time a substantial pure chestnut stand was harvested.

There are several chestnut restoration projects underway in Virginia; the October harvest contributes to research into viable markets for chestnut wood products, which may, in turn, support restoration efforts.

For one purpose, the harvest will contribute to ongoing, informal research about chestnut wood properties, durability and market viability; for example, it is useful to know if hybrid chestnut wood has similar decay resistance to pure American chestnut, such that it may be used for fence posts – a once important market for American chestnut wood product. The wood harvested may also be used in more formal research to identify and compare the structural and mechanical differences in the wood of pure versus hybrid chestnuts.

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Pictured: (left) Bill Perry, Charlie Becker and Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist); (right) Joe Lehnen and Chris Cox (utilization project developer)

Additionally, the harvest provided a source of wood for an upcoming workshop about log grading, lumber and wood drying, hosted at VDOF James W. Garner building in Charlottesville on November 7. Pre-registered workshop attendees will have the unique opportunity to participate in the milling of pure chestnut wood. Once the wood is milled into usable planks, Charlie Becker and the marketing and utilization team will identify appropriate uses or projects for the wood (in addition to research initiatives). Such projects may include educational demonstrations, wood type displays at the VDOF Headquarters or possibly even furniture built by local artisans.

Related Media:
NBC29: Virginia Sawyers Cutting American Chestnut Trees for First Time in Decades, November 11, 2019

 

Restoring Urban Canopy at the James W. Garner Building

On the morning of November 4, a crew of volunteers from Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards (CATS) and a University of Virginia chapter of Alpha Phi Omega (APO) worked with several Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) staff members to plant 16 trees on the VDOF campus front lawn.

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The driveway and the lawn are the first places that visitors see when arriving to the VDOF James W. Garner building in Charlottesville; these native trees welcome visitors to our building, so their care and maintenance are especially important.

Earlier this season, several unhealthy trees were removed from the front lawn; CATS helped source appropriate trees to restore the urban canopy on this part of the campus. Trees planted included one bitternut hickory (which was especially difficult to source), three sweetbay magnolia, two cucumber magnolia, two Kentucky coffeetree, two catalpa, two osage-orange and three redbuds.

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CATS has helped with tree plantings and care on the VDOF campus for many years, including assistance with two major plantings on campus during the past five years. One of the future goals for CATS is to help the VDOF campus gain a Level I arboretum designation, which will entail an inventory of the species on the VDOF property, labeling 25 woody plant species and developing a master plan to reach the minimum requirements for arboretum designation. VDOF staff will develop the plan, label the trees and provide the CATS crew with the necessary tools and information to conduct an inventory in the coming year.

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Some of the trees planted on campus (including some planted along the VDOF campus nature trail) already have QR codes that visitors can scan to get more information about the species.

Lara Johnson is appreciative of all the dedication and support from CATs –  from their assistance with tree planting, pruning and general care to their management of the new small-scale tree nursery at the VDOF headquarters. At this location, CATS grows seedlings sourced from the VDOF nurseries and later sells them at seasonal native plant sales.

VDOF staff look forward to watching the newly planted trees grow big and strong in the coming years. It is with the support of volunteer naturalist groups like CATS that VDOF can perform these special projects.

CATS offers trainings for new members each fall. They also host tree- and forest-related events throughout the year. Learn more about getting involved with CATS:

www. charlottesvilleareatreestewards.org/