Field Notes: When Volunteers Go Bad

by Sarah Parmelee, Area Forester

Last fall, a little seedling popped up in my yard. It was too young to be readily identifiable, so I left it on the off chance that it was something cool. This spring when it leafed out, I realized that it was a butterfly bush.

Butterfly bush.

Now, I do not have any other butterfly bushes in my yard, but other folks in my neighborhood do, and this “volunteer” bush in my yard likely came from seeds spread from a neighbor’s yard. Aside from non-native butterfly bushes, my neighbors also have non-native Japanese barberry, burning bush, and Bradford pear that they care for and maintain as part of their landscaping.

Our choices for landscaping may seem innocent enough, but what we plant in our yards matters to our neighbors and our forests because plants like to spread. Some will spread through roots or rhizomes like mints, irises and tree-of-heaven. Others like sycamore, mulberry or cockleburs will produce seeds that disperse in the wind or will be spread by animals. In a yard with a mowed lawn and weeded flowerbeds, there may be few “volunteers” popping up, but downwind, downstream or along paths taken by wildlife, there may be many.

Why does this matter? Many of the plants that we plant in our yards and gardens are not native to this area (such as the plants in my neighbors’ yard mentioned earlier.) Plant species spend thousands of years developing important relationships within the place where they grow. This includes relationships between plants and pollinating insects, as well as with larger critters such as birds and deer. When we take a plant that has evolved to live in and contribute to its local ecosystem and replace it with a plant that’s native to an ecosystem halfway across the world, we disrupt many of these relationships.

Plants that do not have these developed relationships with the other native fauna are not as easily controlled because they have few natural predators. For example, deer like to eat the growing tips of native hardwood trees like oak seedlings, but they do not like to eat the tips of tree-of-heaven or Japanese barberry (both non-native, invasive species.) Therefore, when the seeds of these non-native plants disperse, there are no plant predators to slow their growth and spread. This contributes to the widespread infestation of private and public forestland with various non-native plants, some of which were first introduced in our landscaped yards. This is detrimental to forest health because these plants do not support important insects (think about pollinators!) and compete with native plants for resources such as sunlight and water.

There’s good news, however: you can help!  As the weather warms and we focus on our gardens and landscape plans, I encourage you to take a moment to research what you are planting in your yard. For example, a quick Google search will show that butterfly bush is actually bad for butterflies, and local pollinators would be better served if you plant a spicebush or flowering dogwood. There are many trusted resources available to help folks find native plants that work with their landscaping, such as the Virginia Native Plant Society, which provides regional guides for the whole state.

A volunteer yellow-poplar tree!

If we bring native plants back into our yards and lives, we will be giving a helping hand to the many important insects and other critters that are so important for keeping our forests healthy and beautiful.

Although the butterfly bush was an undesirable discovery, I have also found yellow-poplar, flowering dogwood and sycamores in my garden that have spread there from trees in the neighborhood. Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of spreading harmful plants we could inadvertently spread lots of good ones?



Field Notes: Fantastic Ferns

By Ellen Powell, Conservation Educator

Woodland walks in May are a study in fresh, vibrant green. Tree canopies have leafed out, shrubs and saplings fill the midstory, and underfoot, ferns and other ground covers sprawl across the leaf litter.

Ellen Powell_lady fern_2020
Lady fern (Athyrium asplenoides).

Ferns are not flowering plants; their reproduction is altogether different. They have a unique two-phase life cycle. The sporophyte form is the plant we recognize as a fern. It releases spores, which grow into tiny plantlets called gametophytes. These contain male and female organs and are capable of being fertilized in the presence of water. From a fertilized gametophyte, a new sporophyte grows, starting the cycle again.

Early last month, ferns were sending up new sporophyte shoots. You can see why they’re called fiddleheads! Now the shoots have unfurled, carpeting the forest floor with delicate fronds.

Some interesting Piedmont ferns include maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), with fronds arranged in a circlet; lacy, dainty lady fern (Athyrium asplenoides), often found on stream banks; rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum), with a stalk of clustered grapelike sporangia; sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), with a simple leaf outline; ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), with erect spikes of tiny leaflets on a black rachis; and the ubiquitous Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), with stocking-shaped leaflets.

Ellen Powell_maidenhair fern_2020
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).

Featured photo at top of page shows a sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis).


Recognizing Virginia Public Service Professionals, May 3– 9, 2020

from Hector Rivera, VDOF’s Director of Human Resources

For many, the beginning of May is a period of both anticipation and celebration – whether we’re counting down to summer break, celebrating high school or college graduation, or honoring the beautiful mothers in our lives.

And for more than three decades, the first week of May has also marked a time to officially recognize the dedicated professionals engaged in public service across the Commonwealth – during May 3 – 9, 2020 we are celebrating the Virginia Public Service Week. This year, more than ever, our committed workforce has endured unprecedented demands to serve, support and adapt in unfamiliar or continually-changing operating environments during the COVID-19 crisis.

Normally, we’d celebrate this week with an employee recognition day. These plans have been delayed until later this summer; but we don’t want to miss this opportunity to acknowledge the employees who have served the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), some for several decades.

Beyond one and three years of service, we recognize employees in five-year increments. This year, we are joyful to celebrate more than 1,000 years of combined public service by our teammates attaining their respective service milestones (between one and 40 years) as of April 30, 2020.

Even in these unprecedented and challenging times, May continues to be a period of anticipation and celebration. We optimistically look forward to honoring our employees in-person later this summer, though the VDOF team will remain flexible and adaptable to whatever these next months bring our way.

We hope you’ll join us now in acknowledging the VDOF teammates who have served 25 years or more:

The 2020 Service Awards Recipients are:

40 Years
Fred Turck
Joseph Lehnen
Carl Belew
David Queen
James Blackwell
Warren Coburn
Junius Miles

35 Years
Daniel Fortune
Bernard Brooks
Charlene Bardon
David Tolliver
William Shumaker

30 Years
Stephen Morris
Brian Ledford
Tammy Ingle

25 Years
Pat Murphy
Steven Coleman
Jay Bassett
Michael Womack

(Header photo: Service awards for employees with 25+ years of service held in Richmond 05/09/2019.)