Field Notes: The Early Shrub Gets the Sun

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

With recent warm weather, Virginia’s woods are greening fast. After a dormant winter, plants gear up for photosynthesis again, using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make food. You might be familiar with some early spring wildflowers that emerge on the forest floor, taking full advantage of the leafless canopy to gather some sun of their own before being shaded out by trees. Unfortunately, the shrub layer in many Virginia woodlands is full of some sneaky sun stealers – invasive plants.

Several of our most problematic invasive shrubs are among the first plants to leaf out in spring. What’s more, they often lose their leaves later than our native woody species. One study from Penn State estimated that invasive shrubs may get more than two months of additional growing time, when you add up their extra spring and fall leafiness. This gives the shrubs a competitive edge over native shrubs. Early leaf growth can also shade out understory plants that already have a pretty short window of opportunity to gather sun. 

In March, the most obvious invasive shrub in the Charlottesville area is autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). The silver-backed leaves give a pale green haze to many an understory, showing us just how prolific this shrub is. Soon after leaf-out, autumn olive’s sickly-sweet fragrance will permeate the woods, followed in summer and fall by silver-dotted red berries.

Except for a few distant pines, everything green in this early-spring photo is autumn olive.

Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) is semi-evergreen in central Virginia, usually retaining a few winter leaves. By March, abundant new leaves are well on their way. Privet is another invasive whose flowers (in June) have a cloying scent and whose berries attract birds. In this case, the berries are dark blue and linger into early winter.

New and old leaves of privet

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is the prickly bane of many trailsides. It often grows in fairly shady areas, but this early leafer has little competition for sunlight in March. This shrub spreads not only from seed, but by spreading from the roots and stem tips that touch the ground. It can form dense thickets that are impossible to walk through without bloodshed.

Young leaves of multiflora rose

Some of the bush honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) bloomed in late winter, well before the leaves appeared, but the shrubs are greening up now. The related Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) vine is mainly evergreen but puts on a flush of new growth in spring. Although evergreens may not actively grow in winter, some continue to put on root growth, and they are definitely ready to go earlier in spring than their deciduous neighbors. Other evergreen invasives include English ivy and wintercreeper euonymus.

Bush honeysuckle flowers and new leaves

You can learn more about invasive shrubs and vines from Blue Ridge PRISM’s fact sheets. PRISM stands for Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management; this very active nonprofit uses education and hands-on efforts to stop the spread of invasives. VDOF’s Common Native Shrubs and Woody Vines also includes a “top ten” section of invasive species. Spring is the perfect time of year for learning to identify these pesky plants. Know them – DON’T grow them!

Field Notes: Spring Break for Salamanders

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

The woods are alive, with the sound of … frog calls? Yes, it must be spring in Virginia!

Beginning in late winter, ponds, swamps, sloughs and vernal pools become concert halls for breeding choruses of frogs and toads, known collectively as anurans (nerd-word of the day). Joining them are the much quieter – but no less numerous – salamanders. These amphibians spend most of the year living in the surrounding woodlands, mostly hidden under vegetation and logs. On rainy nights in early spring, they begin their mass migrations to wet areas for a reproductive frenzy.

Vernal pools are especially important breeding areas for many amphibians. These pools are seasonally flooded wetlands that occur in low spots of forests, floodplains, and meadows, usually filling in late fall or winter and drying up before summer. Their temporary nature ensures that fish can’t live in them, which is good for amphibians, because fish would eat their eggs and larvae.

This vernal pool at Cumberland State Forest is a hidden treasure.

I recently joined a team of Virginia Master Naturalists from the Central Piedmont Chapter to sample two vernal pools on the Cumberland State Forest. As one of their citizen science projects, the group usually monitors pools at High Bridge Trail State Park near Farmville. The park is closed this spring for repairs to the bridge, so Master Naturalists Al and Betsy Lookofsky approached State Forest staff about the possibility of monitoring pools on the Cumberland instead. Forester Shannon Lewis provided a map showing several pool locations, and the group chose two sites to monitor every other week from late February through late May. They will send their data to Dr. Sujan Henkanaththegedara, a biology professor at Longwood University.

For each pool sampled, the team took pH, air and water temperature readings, and measured the pool’s maximum diameter and depth. These measurements vary with rainfall over the winter and spring. In very dry years, pools may fill late or dry out early, and this affects the reproductive success of the amphibians that breed there.

Volunteers measuring pool diameter

The volunteers carefully picked through samples scooped from different areas of the pools, noting the species of amphibians and the presence of other organisms, such as aquatic sowbugs and chironomid midge larvae. On this sampling date, they found marbled salamander larvae (hatched in fall) and many spotted salamander egg masses (newly deposited). I was hoping to see some fairy shrimp, but alas, there were none.

Examining a sample

Fairy shrimp, as well as several salamander and frog species, are considered vernal pool obligates, meaning they generally require vernal pools for reproduction, and their presence is an indicator of a true vernal pool. Spotted salamanders are one of these obligates. Their gelatinous egg masses are easy to spot – they may be clear, milky, or even green when colonized by a specific type of algae.

Spotted salamander egg masses.

Marbled salamanders are another obligate species. By the time the other amphibians arrive in late winter, marbled larvae usually have a head start. That’s because the adults actually lay eggs in the fall, under logs or leaf litter in the dry pools. The females guard the eggs until rains come; if the pool fills late, the eggs can overwinter and hatch later. The larvae we found were already a couple of inches long, sporting obvious frilly external gills.

Marbled salamander larva

Because vernal pools serve as critical habitat for so many species, it’s important to be aware of and careful with them. Pools are vulnerable to many threats, such as development, pollution, and climate change. Although Cumberland is a working forest, the VDOF foresters are careful to protect vernal pools and the adjacent woodlands, noting their location on forest maps so they won’t be accidentally impacted by forest management activities. The presence of these pools could easily go unnoticed, highlighting the importance of landowners becoming very familiar with their own woods in order to protect natural features like these.

Occasionally, other bodies of water can function as vernal pools. Recently, at Mint Springs Valley Park in Crozet, I came upon a chorus of wood frogs (usually vernal pool obligates) calling from what appeared to be the stone foundation of an old building. Several frogs dove for cover when I approached, and the water was full of wood frog eggs, which look like clumps of floating grapes.

Wood frog egg masses in old stone structure.

If you want to see egg masses or larvae, put on your boots and check out the lower spots in your woods. But hurry! In a few months the pools will dry up, and the critters will crawl off into the surrounding forest until next year’s Spring Break pool party.

Field Notes: Atlantic White-cedar Makes a Comeback?

By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater Work Area

A number of years back, a hurricane made landfall on the Outer Banks of North Carolina and forced her way through the southeastern coastal area of Virginia on the way to dumping flooding rains on the remainder of the Commonwealth. That storm was Isabel. In her wake, she left 32 people dead and more than 1.85 billion dollars in damage.

Directly in the path of the storm were Chesapeake and Suffolk.  In addition to homes and businesses, the forests in these cities were significantly impacted. The forests of the Great Dismal Swamp, historically the last refuge of native Atlantic white-cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides) in Virginia, were not spared. 

You can imagine what happens when very soft swamp soils with little mineral content, tall mature timber, and high winds meet. Large swaths of timber were toppled by the force of Isabel’s winds. This “blown down” timber was eventually salvage logged by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the caretakers of the swamp.  In a happy accident, this disturbance resulted in a flush of Atlantic white- cedar regeneration arising from buried seed in the organic soil. 

Atlantic white-cedar seedling (Photo credit: Jen Wright, USFWS)

Atlantic white-cedar to the casual observer (myself included) appears identical to eastern redcedar, a common Virginia native tree. Their forms and shapes are similar, as is their scale-like evergreen foliage. How might you tell them apart, you ask? Their preferred growing sites are anything but similar. Atlantic white-cedar is found naturally on organic soils, which form in places with a high water table, where organic debris like leaves, needles, branches, logs, and even the occasional dead deer do not fully decompose. In a dry upland site, this organic material is mixed with the mineral soil through the action of animals and weathering. In the swamp, however, this “unincorporated” material becomes essentially compost, or peat. It is a productive but very wet soil type, at least during normal times. 

Years after Isabel led to regeneration of white-cedar in the swamp, a drought settled in over southeastern Virginia. Eventually, a thunderstorm brewed over the Great Dismal, and a lightning bolt flashed in a cloud-to-ground strike, hitting the now dry organic soil. It was likely several days before a visible plume of smoke could be seen over the swamp, and a “peat fire” was underway. 

Unfortunately, organic soil is made of carbon, just like coal (which, if given enough time and the proper conditions, this “peat soil” might become). This means that if it catches on fire, like it did during the thunderstorm, it can burn for a very long time. In fact, it tends to burn until most of the organic soil, which may be several feet deep, is consumed. This makes peat fires extremely hard to extinguish. Fire crews from all over the country came to the swamp to battle the fire, but by the time they were able to moisten the organic soil by blocking ditches and pumping water, much of the newly regenerated Atlantic white-cedar had been destroyed. 

Today there are acres of shallow waters and, in some cases, invasive wetland plants like Phragmites australis where the regenerating white-cedar forest once was. Most of the organic soil was destroyed, but in some areas there is enough left to support an Atlantic white-cedar forest. Without a seed source, however, the forest needed the help of scientists and foresters to get started.

Jen Wright, a biologist at the Great Dismal Swamp, and Josh Bennicoff, the Garland Gray Nursery manager, entered into a partnership early in 2020 to grow Atlantic white-cedar seedlings in the VDOF containerized nursery. This was test, as VDOF had not attempted to grow this species before. After securing “pelletized” seeds from the North Carolina Forest Service nursery, Josh was able to plant the very tiny seeds using our pine seed equipment. Had they not been pelletized, Josh would have had to plant thousands of poppy-seed sized seeds by hand! By midsummer this group of test seedlings were well on their way to being ready for planting in their new home. At the end of the growing season, the year-old seedlings were packaged and transported — destined for planting in the burn-scarred area. 

Atlantic white-cedar seedlings bejeweled in dew Photo credit: Scott Bachman

In early December of 2020, volunteers gathered at the Dismal Swamp office on a Saturday morning to take the two thousand or so seedlings out to the planting sites. This wasn’t just any planting though; to get to the sites, the volunteers often had to canoe! The seedlings, though small, will hopefully find the swamp a great home and enhance the efforts to reforest the burned area with Atlantic white-cedar. 

If the plantings are successful and become established, hopefully this partnership between the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and the Virginia Department of Forestry’s Garland Gray Forestry Center will grow and positively improve other habitats on the Refuge. We look forward to following the growth of these seedlings into the future!   


Field Notes: Wandering the Winter Woods

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

A few weeks ago, on a cold but sunny day, I visited Paul State Forest in Rockingham County for the first time. It was a great place for a winter woods walk.

The Paul became a State Forest in 1962 – a gift to the state from a local judge, John Paul. The forest is included in the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) list of Virginia Birding Trail sites. DWR describes it quite accurately as “an island of forest in a sea of farmland.” The Paul is located on Clover Hill Road near Dayton, just north of Ottobine (map). Look for the old-school wooden sign at the parking area!

The Paul’s 173 acres of mature hardwoods and scattered pines provide winter foraging and roosting habitat for many birds. The day I was there, the woods and edges revealed a typical winter bird crew: red-bellied and downy woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, and northern cardinal. I hope to go back in late April, when the trees should be alive with migrating warblers.

Carolina chickadee

Stumps reveal that trees are sometimes harvested from this forest. Forest management is one key distinction between State Forests and State Parks, with which they are sometimes confused. State Forests are managed for multiple uses, or sometimes quite specific ones, depending on deed restrictions set forth by the donor. Many of our State Forests pay their own way as true “working” forests. In fact, no state general funds are used to maintain State Forests, and 25% of any timber sale revenue is returned to the county where the forest is located.  

Winter is the perfect time to study and appreciate tree bark in a hardwood forest like the Paul: the pale shagginess of white oak, diamond-patterned furrows of mockernut hickory, the “burnt cornflake” look of black cherry, and lots of other interesting textures. I found an unexpected species during my walk at the Paul: bigtooth aspen. I recognized its smooth, olive-tinged bark, then confirmed my identification with some nearby fallen leaves.

In winter, the understory of the Paul is quite open, in part because goats were posted there to eat invasive plants last summer. Thankfully, they didn’t do much damage to the native spicebush – perhaps because it tastes like lemon furniture polish? The spicebush flower buds were already showing yellow when I visited; if you visit now (mid-March), they should be in full bloom.

Like many of our State Forests, the Paul is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It has a small parking area on a country road, and no facilities other than a few picnic tables. But the views from the parking lot and forest edges are lovely, and the forest roads are easy to hike, making it a perfect place for families with young children. Kids outdoors tend to find their own entertainment, and everybody can learn unexpected things from a walk in the woods. (For example, after pulling a large pine branch off the path during my walk, I discovered that hand sanitizer is great for removing pine sap from hands.)

Farm view from the edge of Paul State Forest

In these days of virtual instruction, why not create your own field trip with a visit to a State Forest? You can take along some of Virginia Department of Forestry’s activity ideas for kids to try outdoors. Bonus: They’re fun for adults too!

An Exciting Mass Timber Project in Charlottesville

During a sunny March morning, a team from the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Virginia Department of Agricultural Consumer Services (VDACS) toured an exciting mass timber construction project in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. The building will eventually house the headquarters office of Apex Clean Energy – a locally-based wind and solar energy company – as well as headquarters for Hourigan Development and Riverbend Development.

Architects at William McDonough + Partners designed the building to be constructed using mass timber products – a catch-all term for engineered wood materials used in construction, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels and glued-laminated (glulam) beams.

Learn more about mass timber construction from #forestproud.

Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell discusses mass timber construction with Eric Ross (William McDonough + Partners) at the Apex Clean Energy building in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Contemporary mass timber construction has become an increasingly desirable option for sustainability-focused clients. Eric Ross of William McDonough + Partners explained that his firm works with a number of clients – both in the United States and internationally – that choose mass timber construction for sustainability, function, safety, and aesthetics. 

Mass timber structures serve as sustainable carbon solutions throughout their entire lifecycle. Trees grown for mass timber products are a renewable resource; they will capture and store carbon until they are harvested, at which point new trees are planted to replace them. The resulting wood products, such as boards and beams, will continue to sequester carbon for decades beyond the harvest. 

The use of mass timber materials goes beyond the lifecycle as a building. Typically, when a building reaches the end of its use, it’s demolished and the debris is sent to a landfill. Wood materials in mass timber construction are prefabricated and assembled in ways that extend their usefulness – certain materials can be disassembled and reused in the wood industry. 

Concerns about fire protection once limited the use of timber in certain tiers of building codes – a legitimate concern (as wood is combustible) that mass timber manufacturers have taken seriously. Frequent fire rating studies have demonstrated that mass timber materials meet or exceed standards for fire safety in certain tiers of construction. Because the laminated beams are so thick, only the surface will char when against flames. The standard glue used in CLT and glulam products contains fire retardants to protect against longer burning fires. The manufacturers continue work to improve the efficacy and environmental impact of chemicals in the glue.

So, what’s it like working with CLT and glulam in construction? The Apex building project team agreed that cost and effort are comparable to using other materials (such as steel or concrete), and in some aspects easier or quicker. As projects become more common, everyone learns and the process improves, says Ross.

Because mass timber is rising in popularity, you need to lock in requests for prefabricated materials very early on in the process. The prefab nature of the materials inherently requires plenty of up-front design work and limits the ability to make changes during construction; but the structures can also be erected more quickly. The necessary collaboration and engagement among building owners, architects, designers, manufacturers, and construction crews ultimately results in superior project outcomes.

Depending on the region, crews with experience in mass timber construction may be readily available. But even working in areas where the workforce is new to mass timber construction has not presented notable obstacles for construction crews. As mass timber becomes more common, the project managers said they expect that sourcing skilled workers will only get easier.

The wood in the Apex building will largely remain exposed as a design feature – a notable benefit of working with CLT. Building owners of mass timber structures often decide to leave portions of the wood (such as structural beams and ceilings) exposed for aesthetic purposes. This saves both time and cost during the finishing process. 

The wood used in this structure is black spruce sourced from Canada. Both the VDOF team and the building crews believe that mass timber has a strong future in the southeastern United States, where native softwood species are comparable to black spruce. 

Given how much foresters love trees – and by extension, wood – it’s no surprise that the VDOF team was enthusiastic about seeing this distinctive project in person. “Quite simply, it’s really exciting to see such a large structure being built with wood in our state,” says Virginia’s State Forester Rob Farrell. At six stories and more than 130,000 square feet, the Apex building will be the tallest mass timber structure in Virginia. “I’m looking forward to seeing more of this construction in our region and for Virginia to serve as a leader for sustainable mass timber production,” says Farrell.

Read more about the Apex Energy building from William McDonough + Partners.

View a time-lapse of the building’s construction process.

Field Notes: EAB-Killed Ash – Use It or Lose It!

By Joe Lehnen, VDOF Forest Utilization & Marketing Specialist, and Katlin DeWitt, VDOF Forest Health Specialist

The emerald ash borer (EAB) is an invasive beetle that has decimated native ash trees. It has been present in the U.S. since the late 1990s, feeding on and killing ash in Virginia since initial detection in 2008. This insect is native to Asia and most likely arrived on imported wood packaging material. While named for the metallic green coloring of the adult, it’s the white, segmented larva that destroys the tree by feeding under the bark on the tree’s vascular tissue. This feeding disrupts the movement of water and nutrients within the tree. The ‘S’-shaped feeding galleries the larvae create dry out the inner tissue and make it very brittle. As the tree dies over a two- to three-year period, it continually loses moisture content, becoming drier and more brittle with each passing month.

EAB adult shown with larval galleries

Symptoms and stress responses from EAB feeding include epicormic sprouting (sprouts coming out of the trunk from dormant buds), crown dieback, woodpecker stripping (they love to eat the larvae!), and ‘D’-shaped exit holes on the bark from where the adults emerge.

Currently, EAB has been confirmed in most counties in Virginia. There are just a few counties in the southeastern part of the state where we have yet to find any life stage of this beetle to send to the State Entomologist for official confirmation.  In areas like northern Virginia and Southside, where EAB has been present for over a decade, most trees that were not chemically treated are now dead. (Visit this interactive dashboard for more information.) In areas where the infestation is still ongoing, some trees will look outwardly healthy but have symptoms of decline. There is typically a lag period from when the beetles first infest an ash to when symptoms begin to show, making it important to plan ahead to treat or remove your tree before it dies! While ash species only makes up about 2% of all forested volume in Virginia, this still comes out to an estimated 187 million ash trees across the state. Additionally, this species can be found in high concentrations in urban and riparian areas, meaning that loss of these trees has a greater localized impact.

Declining ash trees, a common sight in Virginia

Tree fellers have relayed stories about the branches of dead ash breaking and falling as the trees are being cut, or the entire crown “exploding” as it hits the ground. Without question, there must be increased safety awareness when felling EAB-killed ash. Most arboriculture companies will not allow their personnel to climb a dead ash to begin the felling process.

In a recent project at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah in Lynchburg, VDOF personnel assisted local arborists with an ash removal project. While the arborists dismantled the trees near structures, VDOF sawyers felled the dead ash located in the woods that were adjacent to trails and other remote recreational facilities. Most all of these ash did not leaf out in 2020. VDOF project leader Bill Perry indicated that only smaller branches (2” or less) broke apart when the tree hit the ground. He also noted there was no breakage or cracking of the trunks. Bill also provided the following advice when felling these dead ash trees: “I was skeptical of using an open-face notch (90 degree) and leaving a heavy hinge. The trees are very quick to split up the trunk. Using a 45-degree face notch and a stump shot with a thinner hinge was giving me good results. I was not heavy wedging any of the trees for fear of wood quality.”

Ash trees killed by the EAB can still make a quality lumber product. The main takeaway is to mill these dying/dead trees as soon as possible for two reasons: the safety of the tree feller, and the integrity of the wood. Also remember that the EAB is not a deep boring insect. Most of the damage done by EAB activity is removed as the outside bark slabs are sawed from the log. If you’re searching for a portable sawmiller to process ash logs, check out the Urban and Small Woodlot Forestry Business Directory, where over 45 are listed.

Portable sawmill

Scientists are working hard to help protect ash in the long term. Researchers at the USDA Forest Service are working on studying the genetics of seemingly resistant trees. There are also national seed collection banks that are collecting seeds of all ash species, in order to preserve a seed source to replant the landscape once the first wave of EAB attack has subsided. In the meantime, VDOF is working to treat as many ash trees as possible with insecticides and to release small, host-specific wasps (harmless to humans) to control EAB eggs and larvae. Collectively, the efforts of many are helping to preserve ash across the Virginia landscape.