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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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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)
By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator
As a botany enthusiast, I spend a lot of spring hikes looking down, seeking out flashes of white and pops of color from early spring wildflowers. Fortunately, when I get tired of staring at the forest floor, there are blooms to be seen at eye level and above, thanks to our spring-blooming native trees and shrubs.
I should first note that all of our broad-leaved trees and shrubs produce flowers, as any allergy sufferer knows all too well. Many plants’ blooms go unnoticed, being quite small or not very “flowerlike” to the human eye. For example, those crispy caterpillar-like strands you sweep off your deck this time of year are catkins, containing the male flowers of oak trees. Plants with these nondescript, unscented flowers often have wind-blown pollen. In contrast, the flowers that catch our attention are usually insect-pollinated. Spring blossoms provide a critical food source for insects that emerge early, and even for hummingbirds on their spring migration north.
One of our earliest-blooming native shrubs is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This medium-sized shrub can be abundant in the understory of moist woodlands, often along streams and wetland edges. Appearing before the leaves, the flowers resemble tiny yellow pompoms along bare stems. To me, they stand out like fireflies when the woods are still drab gray and brown.
The serviceberries (Amelanchier species) are among our first-blooming small trees. Their flowers look like dainty white stars caught in the leafless branches. In some areas, this tree is known as shadbush, so-named because it blooms when the shad begin their migration runs up Virginia rivers.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is another small tree that blooms before the leaves appear. If you notice clouds of purple hazing the highway edges in early April, that’s redbud. As a nice bonus, the tiny flowers are edible. Toss them in a salad for pretty color and extra vitamin C; they taste sort of like peas, but with a slight sour tang.
Everyone is familiar with Virginia’s state flower (and tree), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). But did you know that the four iconic white “petals” are not actually the flowers? Instead they are bracts, petal-like leaves that surround a cluster of small yellow flowers. So our state flower is really more of a state “cluster of tiny flowers surrounded by very showy bracts.” Cheer up, Virginia – North Carolina was fooled too!
About the time dogwood’s display lights up the woods, you may notice another small understory tree (or is it a shrub?) holding big lacy clusters of tiny white flowers above newly unfurled leaves. It’s blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), one of the larger and showier of Virginia’s viburnums.
The blooms of yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) are striking, but you may never have seen them. That’s because yellow-poplar grows fast and tall, so the flowers tend to be high in the canopy. I often find fallen ones along trails in early May. They loosely resemble tulips, giving rise to one of the tree’s common names, tuliptree. Those big, showy flowers are also a good clue that this tree is in the magnolia family, not a poplar at all.
There are several species of wild azalea in Virginia, but the most common and widespread is pink azalea or pinxterflower (Rhododendron periclymenoides). Unlike the heavy-flowering imported azaleas so popular in the nursery trade, wild azalea is deciduous, with sparser flower clusters that stand out nevertheless. Pink azalea is one of the later shrubs to leaf out, with flowers appearing just before or with the leaves. The very long, curved pistil and stamens (female and male flower parts, respectively) give each flower a delicate, spidery look. If you’re lucky, you might see a hummingbird probing the tubular flowers.
I can’t end this post without highlighting my favorite spring-blooming shrub – mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Pennsylvania and Connecticut had the right idea – THAT would make a great state flower! Despite having mountain in its name, this evergreen shrub is found all over the state. The masses of flowers vary from white to pink. Each one is a work of art, a case of form following function. The petals are fused into a cuplike structure that make a nice, secure landing place for a bee. The ten arched stamens have their anthers tucked into pockets, marked by dark pink dots inside the flower. When a bee jostles a stamen, the anther pops out of its pocket, spattering the bee with a puff of pollen. Ingenious! Mountain laurel is typically in bloom around Mother’s Day. That’s a great reason to take your mom, yourself, or really anyone you know, out on a hike this month.
By Scott Bachman, VDOF Senior Area Forester, Blackwater team
Now that it’s April I will declare that spring is officially here in southeastern Virginia!
Earlier this month, I was traveling a back road in Southampton County when ahead I saw a line of small objects on the highway. As I got closer, I could see they were birds. The lead bird was larger than the four that followed. My first thought was that they were quail, and being a quail enthusiast, I thought it was unusual to see a family of quail this time of year. As I got closer, I realized these were not quail, but a family of American woodcock! The lead bird was the adult female, with four young of the year in tow.
I slowed my vehicle and stopped before I reached the small family. The adult bird hopped off into the mature pine forest on the far side of the road. The hatchlings, however, simply squatted down in the middle of the road. I got out of the truck and, after taking a close up of one of the chicks, herded the young birds off the road in the direction of their mother.
I have seen plenty of adult woodcock (Scolopax minor, also known as timberdoodle and several other names) in my work as a forester and as a quail hunter. They are a federally regulated migratory game bird common in Virginia during the winter months. The birds we see in the winter, I have assumed, migrated from more northern states in search of ice free habitat. During hunting season, I expect to see more woodcock when bad weather up north forces these long-range travelers south. Growing up in western Pennsylvania, I remember seeing woodcock in the fall. They were associated with swampy areas and known for making a funny chirping sound when flying.
I had never seen a young woodcock, so I decided to do a little reading. According to the Audubon Society’s website, these plump birds call many different habitats home, but prefer moist forest thickets and brush as well as open fields. To feed, they probe the moist soils with their very long bill, which has a flexible tip to allow grabbing worms and other organisms under the soil.
Still curious about their presence in the spring, I contacted Marc Puckett, a friend, hunting partner, and small game biologist with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). While Marc is best known for his work with quail, he also knows some about woodcock and enjoys hunting them. He told me that, while all woodcock migrate at some point, occurring from Canada all the way to Louisiana at varying times of year, we have some woodcock that act almost like local birds. They spend a great deal of time in Virginia, from fall until early summer in some cases. And woodcock do nest here, with some nests documented as early as late January, even with snow on the ground! They prefer to nest in thick cover, typically regenerating forest lands. Little is known about these woodcock that behave somewhat like residents. A study is currently being coordinated in Virginia by Dr. Gary Costanzo, the DWR migratory gamebird biologist. Stay tuned to the DWR website for information about results of the ongoing study.
While woodcock are fascinating birds in nearly every respect, particularly interesting is the male mating display that occurs prior to nesting. Males may gather in open areas and give “peent” calls prior to flying straight up in the air, then twisting back to the ground to attract females. Males have special feathers on their wings that make them whistle during their flight, and the tips of their tail feathers on the underside are bright white to help the females see them during their ground display. (They strut much like a turkey gobbler!) Honestly, I don’t think I have ever seen this, and you may not have either. This interesting ritual takes place in February or March, beginning in the late evening and continuing until after dark. It also may be repeated in the early morning hours, concluding before full light.
It’s good to know that in the darkest, coldest days of winter in Virginia, the American woodcock and its unique mating flights are predicting the coming of spring and the renewal of life in the forest. Like many other forest dwelling animals, however, their population levels may be falling on the East Coast due to habitat degradation and loss. Forest management, therefore, is an important tool for woodcock habitat improvement. Your local Department of Forestry staff can connect you with a biologist that can help you if you are interested in woodcock management on your land.
Hemlock trees have been under attack since the introduction of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive insect that was first discovered in eastern North America in the 1950s. These small insects settle at the base of hemlock needles, feed on plant sap, and surround themselves in soft, white ovisacs that resemble cotton balls. They may look harmless, but the hemlock woolly adelgid has caused widespread hemlock mortality in eastern North America. To fight back, the VDOF forest health program has implemented a variety of control techniques to protect remaining hemlocks on State Forests in Virginia.
When applied correctly, chemical control is very effective and can protect a hemlock tree for many years. In April, VDOF forest health staff and Shenandoah work area staff treated over ninety hemlock trees at First Mountain State Forest and over thirty trees at Paul State Forest. The hemlocks at both forests are infested with the hemlock woolly adelgid, but are in relatively good condition. A systemic insecticide was applied as a soil drench around the base of each tree; it will be taken up by the roots and distributed throughout the tree to provide protection for up to seven years!
Biological control is another method with the potential to provide long-term protection. All biological control agents are studied at quarantine facilities before they are approved for release, to ensure that they will not affect non-target hosts. Predator beetles (Laricobius spp.) have been released on public lands for many years, but this year VDOF participated in the release of a new biocontrol agent- silver flies. The larvae of Leucopis argenticollis silver flies prey on the eggs of hemlock woolly adelgid. In March, 435 adult Leucopis argenticollis flies from the NYS Hemlock Initiative’s HWA Bio-Control research lab at Cornell University were released at Sandy Point State Forest. We hope that these flies will establish a population and help control the hemlock woolly adelgid at Sandy Point for many years.
By Todd Groh, VDOF Forest Resource Management Program Manager
The Reforestation of Timberlands (RT) Program is turning fifty years old this year. This program, managed by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), is a good example of what can be done when people come together for a common goal.
More than fifty years ago, Virginia looked a lot different than it does today. Although forests were still prevalent across the state, many more trees – especially pines – were being harvested to meet the great need for wood and wood products. Trees were being cut quicker than they could grow back. Timber industry leaders came together with Virginia’s General Assembly to revise the forest products tax paid by forest industry, with a goal of developing a funding source that could encourage landowners to plant pines on their recently harvested forestlands. The General Assembly agreed to match the industry’s taxes, and the Reforestation of Timberlands Program was born.
After fifty years, the RT Program is still going strong, assisting landowners with a portion of their pine reforestation costs. Practices covered by the program include site preparation, planting fast-growing pine seedlings, and “releasing” pine plantations from weed competition. The RT incentive rates for landowners have varied over the years, but on average, RT has reimbursed between thirty and forty percent of a landowner’s reforestation costs.
Virginia’s forest industry and state government have provided over 94 million dollars in taxes and matching funds, all aimed at keeping Virginia green and growing healthy forests. Since the program began, Virginia forest landowners have answered the challenge, spending over 144 million dollars of their own funds for replanting and growing pine forests.
You may wonder how our state is doing after fifty years of the RT Program. Does Virginia still have a deficit in tree growth as compared to harvest? The answer, happily, is no. On average, Virginia is growing nearly twice as much timber as is being harvested each year, and those trees grow faster and have better quality than ever before. In doing so, they capture and store large amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, protect and improve water quality, and provide important wildlife habitat. This model of success will soon be used in designing an incentive program to help landowners improve their hardwood forests too.