New Home for Field Notes

We are happy to announce that Field Notes is moving to the new and improved Virginia Department of Forestry website, under the Forestry News section: https://dof.virginia.gov/newsroom/

In addition to Field Notes blog posts, you’ll find other announcements and forestry-related stories posted there.

If you are already a Field Notes subscriber, there’s no need to do anything — you will continue to receive notifications of new posts. If you’ve just discovered this site, please consider subscribing to receive Forestry News updates — the sign-up form can be found here.

Growing a Food Forest

By Meghan Mulroy-Goldman, VDOF Community Forester

Ever wonder where the fruit in the grocery store comes from? In today’s supermarkets, you can find fruit and nuts from across the country and globe. You might find bananas from Guatemala, almonds from California, and apples from New York. Many familiar foods grow on trees and can be grown right in your backyard, in city parks, or even on street trees! While growing fruit at home was once a common practice out of necessity, it fell out of favor with the convenience of supermarkets. Today, however, many people are working to bring fruit and nut trees back into our cities and towns, in what can be called a “food forest.”

These food forests can be a great resource to communities, particularly those in food “deserts” where residents might not have easy access to fresh fruits. They can provide all of the usual benefits of trees – shade, reduction in the urban heat island effect, clean air, and clean water, to name a few—with the added benefit of providing a healthy and tasty snack. Imagine going for a walk, and plucking a nice fresh apple off a neighborhood tree to satisfy your hunger.

What might you find in one of these food forests? While we can’t grow everything you would find in a grocery store (sadly, banana trees and pineapples just won’t make it here in Virginia), you can find things like apples, pears, plums, apricots, and even pomegranates in the warmer parts of the state.  You can also find nut trees like pecans. In addition to these familiar fruits, there are also lots of fruits that you might not find in a grocery store, like pawpaw, persimmon, red mulberry, and serviceberry. While all four of these are native Virginia trees, you aren’t likely to find their fruit in the grocery store. Planting them in food forests is a great way to share these tasty, but unfamiliar, fruits with communities.

In early May, the Newport News Green Foundation and the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) began to make a food forest a reality. Tami Farinholt, the director of the Green Foundation, had dreamed of bringing a food forest to Newport News, and when the five-acre parcel in the Southeast community of Newport News was donated to the Green Foundation, she knew this would be a perfect location. The Green Foundation hopes that the food forest can both help address food scarcity in the area and promote the environmental benefits of green spaces.

Many volunteers make short work of planting.

I had the pleasure of working with the Green Foundation to develop a planting plan for phase 1 of their food forest installation, which includes figs, serviceberries, Asian pears, persimmons, and plums. Last week, thirty-five fruit trees and shrubs were installed by volunteers from the Newport News Green Foundation and VDOF staff. A local newspaper covered the story. Future plans for the site include an outdoor classroom for the nearby elementary school, community garden beds, an herb garden, and more fruit trees. Everyone is excited about the new source of fruit at the Peninsula’s first food forest and looks forward to seeing that food really does grow on trees!

Freshly planted fruit trees

The Early Caterpillar Gets the Leaf!

By Katlin DeWitt, VDOF Forest Health Specialist

Spring is a welcome season for many living things, signaling the end of cold weather and resurgence of color through plants blooming and leafing out. This period of awakening also means that insects emerge and utilize tender foliage for their own development. Forests support many insects throughout their life cycle, but some Lepidopteran species (butterflies and moths) are called early season defoliators, meaning they feed on trees early in spring just as the leaves come out. 

Three native early season defoliators – fall cankerworm, eastern tent caterpillar and forest tent caterpillar – can cause alarm when their feeding strips trees of their leaves. But these native insects have co-evolved with their host species, and they only cause mortality when high populations feed on trees for consecutive years. In most cases, no control is necessary, as natural predators tend to keep populations below damaging levels. However, gypsy moth, an invasive species introduced from Europe, is an early season defoliator that can reach damaging levels and cause large areas of defoliation when left unchecked. 

Fall Cankerworm

Despite its name, fall cankerworm caterpillars emerge in early spring after females lay eggs on branches in the fall. These small caterpillars feed on many species of hardwood, including oaks, maples, black cherry, and beech. They can vary in color between light green with white lines down the back to brownish green with a black stripe down the back. Frequently called inchworms for the way they crawl across surfaces, they can consume entire leaves, leaving only the major veins. Egg hatch co-occurs with bud break in late April to May, so the caterpillars are primed to consume young foliage immediately. In most instances, healthy trees can withstand a defoliation event from this insect. However, when consecutive years of defoliation occur, or in urban settings where trees can be under other stressors, mortality can occur if outbreaks are not managed. 

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Easily spotted by the silken tent created in branch crotches of cherry, apple, and crabapple trees, this caterpillar is frequently noticed in early spring. As buds begin to open, these caterpillars hatch from egg masses laid on host trees at the end of the previous season. Small caterpillars stay together and form a web-like tent at the union of branches on trees they will soon defoliate. The larvae are hairy, with a white stripe running down their backs. Unlike some hairy caterpillars, they will not sting if held or touched. They feed in the morning or evening, avoiding the heat of the day. Though trees they feed on look completely defoliated, most will recover and produce a new flush of foliage after the caterpillars have dropped to the ground to pupate. 

Eastern tent caterpillars on their silky web

Forest Tent Caterpillar 

Unlike the eastern tent caterpillar, the forest tent caterpillar does not form a true tent. Instead, caterpillars form a silken mat on large branches or the main trunk of trees. Host plants include oaks, blackgum, basswood, and other hardwood species. These insects emerge as buds swell and break, and they feed on larger leaves as they grow. They are also hairy caterpillars (that won’t hurt to touch); however, they have a pattern on their backs that some say looks like keyholes, penguins, or footprints. (I think footprints – plus, F for footprint and F for forest helps me remember the difference between forest and eastern tent caterpillars!) No management is required, as most trees recover from defoliation events and natural enemies help to control populations. 

Forest tent caterpillars, showing “footprint” markings; photo by Herbert A. ‘Joe’ Pase III, Texas A&M Forest Service, Bugwood.org

European Gypsy Moth

The European gypsy moth was accidentally introduced in Massachusetts in the late 1860s. It is a highly problematic caterpillar that has a large host range and can reach damaging population levels quickly when conditions are right. White oak is a preferred host, though most other oaks, maples, poplar, birch, and even some conifers will also be consumed. Healthy trees can usually survive a year of defoliation, but often outbreaks of gypsy moth can last multiple years and stress trees to the point of mortality. Females lay rust or tan-colored egg masses on tree trunks or other flat surfaces in the fall, and caterpillars hatch in spring. They do not form silken tents like the forest and eastern tent caterpillars. Like these caterpillars, they are hairy, but one key distinction is that gypsy moth caterpillars have a pattern of five pairs of blue dots followed by six pairs of red dots on their backs. Since this pest is non-native, there are no specific co-evolved predators that keep populations below damaging levels in outbreak years. For landscape trees, or in areas where large areas of trees are at risk, control is recommended.

For more information about these early season defoliators, and other forest health issues, please check out the VDOF Tree and Forest Health Guide

Woodland Weirdos

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

There’s a lot going on underfoot in Virginia’s forests, from wild to wonderful to just plain weird. Some of our strangest plants break all the rules we learned back in elementary school. They aren’t green, they don’t photosynthesize, and they don’t even look like plants.  

Ghost plant, aka Indian pipes

At first glance, these odd growths emerging from the leaf litter appear to be mushrooms. A closer look reveals they are actually flowering plants, minus the green chlorophyll. They don’t need any, because they don’t make their own food. Known as Indian pipes or ghost plant, Monotropa uniflora is mycoheterotrophic. That’s a fancy way of saying it gets its food from a fungus – specifically, from tiny mycorrhizal fungi that live in nodules on the roots of oak or beech trees. What a lazy way to make a living!

Another freeloading plant of Virginia woodlands is bear corn, Conopholis americana, also known as squawroot or cancer root. Bear corn is truly a parasite, taking its nutrition directly from a host plant, usually an oak or beech tree. And yes, bears do eat it! I’ve read that humans can too, but don’t do so without researching ways to prepare it. Native Americans used this strange plant for a variety of medicinal purposes.

Bear corn, aka squawroot, aka cancer root

Years ago, when I lived in the Northern Neck, I often drove past a wetland with plants covered in what looked like mats and tangles of thin orange wire. An Extension coworker clued me in about this oddball plant. It was dodder, a parasite that he knew as an agricultural field pest. Having no real roots, these vegetative vampires use structures called haustoria to penetrate and suck nutrients and water from their host plants. There are quite a few species of dodder in Virginia, all in the genus Cuscuta. Some are very host-specific, while others are more general in their host selection. Scientists believe that dodder “sniffs out” its preferred host plant by zeroing in on certain chemicals. Check out this short time-lapse video of a tiny dodder vine latching onto a tomato plant!

Dodder (Photo credit: Chris Evans, University of Illinois, bugwood.org)

Want to learn more about these woodland weirdos, or try your skill at identifying them? Consider the Flora of Virginia mobile app, which contains several types of identification keys and lots of technical details about all of Virginia’s plants. Visit https://floraofvirginia.org/ for more information. If you don’t want to buy either the app or the ten-pound book, you can also access a free digital guide to Virginia flora, although this version doesn’t have a key, so you have to know what you’re looking for. Take it from a true nature nerd – you can never have too many reference materials!

Arbor Day in Pandemic Times

By Molly O’Liddy, VDOF Community Forestry Partnership Coordinator

Despite these uncertain times, communities across the Commonwealth have continued to celebrate their love of trees in Arbor Day celebrations. In Virginia, Arbor Day is annually recognized as the last Friday in April. Traditionally, cities and towns have held parades, concerts and festivals that bring the whole community together. During the first Arbor Day, held in Nebraska in 1872, one million trees were planted in a single day!

This year’s official Arbor Day in Virginia was April 30. Because of COVID-19, many celebrations moved to a virtual space: pre-recorded or private plantings with limited numbers of people in attendance. Read on to learn how some of Virginia’s “Tree Cities” celebrated Arbor Day during the pandemic.

Harrisonburg’s Planting and Creek Clean-up

The City of Harrisonburg celebrated Arbor Day by planting 50 trees along the North End Greenway. This planting was in conjunction with the annual Blacks Run Clean-up Day, which celebrated its 23rd year. Volunteer groups were smaller and the Parks department had a unique system to handle volunteer sign up by drive-through. Despite virtual classes, James Madison University students were able to participate in the event to give back to the community. The North End Greenway opened in 2019 and due to the pandemic, this is the first Arbor Day celebration to honor the nine years of community effort to finish the project. 

Volunteers planting along the greenway (photo credit: Harrisonburg Parks & Recreation)

A Two-Part Celebration for Suffolk

The City of Suffolk decided to break its celebration into two parts, to be enjoyed virtually. One day, a tree was planted by the mayor, park staff, and City Council members while an Arbor Day proclamation was read. The following day, the city’s outdoor recreation specialist took a canoe trip with a volunteer ‘tree enthusiast’ to discuss tree species along the banks of a lake. Both of these events were recorded and then spliced together to make one event. The entire two-part event was broadcast on various media channels on Virginia’s Arbor Day.

A “Traipse” Through Staunton

Through a grant from the Blue Ridge Community Foundation, the Staunton Parks and Recreation Department partnered with the application platform Traipse to create a scavenger hunt and tree tour for Arbor Day. Participants in the “Great Gypsy Hill Tree Traipse” tour undertake a mission to unlock challenges that can only be answered by finding something specifically near the identified tree’s location. Gypsy Hill Park is a historical staple for the town’s trees, celebrating its first Arbor Day in 1889. The tour creatively takes participants on a journey through history while providing connection between trees of the past and present.

Connecting Trees and Reading in Waynesboro  

The Waynesboro Department of Parks and Recreation hosted its Arbor Day Celebration on April 19, 2021 with children from the local YMCA daycare program. They started with a story hike, reading The Lumberjack’s Beard while taking a short hike down the South River Greenway. This book is about a lumberjack who faces the creatures living in a forest after he cuts down all the trees. Seventeen panels were placed along the greenway, each with a page of the book. Once the group completed reading the book along the hike, they planted an ‘October Glory’ red maple in a grassy, open area along the greenway. This species will be a great shade tree, and is suitable to grow along the river. While planting the tree, the group saw and learned how to properly plant and care for trees. The city also posted a short video explaining how to plant a tree.

No matter how, or when, you celebrate Arbor Day, the most important thing to recognize is the way trees bring us together – whether that’s shoulder to shoulder, or six feet apart.

Featured image: Planting along the greenway beside Black’s Run (photo credit: Harrisonburg Parks & Recreation)

Take Action! May is Wildfire Awareness Month

May 1, 2021 is Wildfire Community Preparedness Day and the entire month of May is considered National Wildfire Awareness Month. The Virginia Department of Forestry is joining in to dedicate May to prevention and preparedness. 

Prevention and suppression of wildfires is a key part of the Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) mission; the agency achieves this through education, as well as responding to and suppressing wildfires. 

VDOF responders suppress more than 700 wildfires each year, protecting lives, forests and property. Fire can be an important component of healthy landscapes. But unplanned, unwanted wildfires especially in developed landscapes, fire can also be devastating, causing loss and harm to people and property. Managing fire in the landscape is critical to maintain healthy forestland and safe communities.

Smokey Bear says, “Repeat after me, ‘Only you … ” (1977). Special Collections, USDA National Agricultural Library.

Protecting the people and forests of Virginia is a concerted effort; VDOF works alongside many local paid and volunteer fire departments, state agencies such as the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, and national organizations like the National Interagency Fire Center and National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Together, these partners work with and for the hundreds of thousands of citizens of the Commonwealth living in what is referred to as the Wildland Urban Interface or WUI – the zone where structures meet with woods or wildlands, which requires special consideration for wildfire protection and mitigation.

The responsibility to be aware and alert about the dangers of wildfire belongs to all of us every day – not just a few days in May. By May spring wildfire season is winding down in Virginia, so this is a good time us all to focus on wildfire prevention. There are steps all of us can take to both prevent wildfires from starting in the first place and to minimize the risk to our homes should a wildfire occur. 

Join our commitment to wildfire preparedness by agreeing to take on one project or task each week in May to help prevent a wildfire from starting or to help protect our homes and communities from the threat of wildfires.

Week One
Remember what Smokey Bear taught us: ONLY YOU can prevent wildfires.
Review Smokey’s rules.

Week Two
Debris burns are a common cause of wildfires in Virginia. Take time to learn about safe debris burning.
Safe Debris Burning
Brush Piles for Wildlife

Week Three
Take steps to protect your home and property from wildfire.
VDOF Home Wildfire Safety Checklist
Smokey Bear: How to Prepare Your Home for Wildfire

Week Four
Wildfire prevention goes beyond your backyard. Get your whole community involved in wildfire prevention.
Protect Your Home

Week Five
Share wildfire information with your friends and family! Start by sharing this short video about Wildfire Community Preparedness Day from NFPA.