Field Notes: A Crop of Cones

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine Coordinator, and Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

Fall is harvest time in Virginia – corn, soybeans, apples, cotton, pine cones … Wait, pine cones?

Pine cones, indeed. The 2020 longleaf pine cone crop was harvested at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s (DCR) South Quay Sandhills Natural Area Preserve during the week of October 12 and at the Department of Forestry’s New Kent Forestry Center on October 19.

Manij Upadhyay harvesting longleaf cones

Why harvest cones? The seeds inside them are the key to restoring a species that was almost gone from our state. The majestic longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) once dominated a wide swath of land from southeastern Virginia across the Southern states to eastern Texas. The fire-dependent longleaf ecosystem was biologically diverse and provided critical habitat to some plants and animals that are now threatened or endangered.

Crown of longleaf pine
Longleaf pine cone (center) beside smaller loblolly pine cones

In Virginia, more than a million acres of longleaf disappeared over the last few centuries. The reasons were many: pitch extraction for the naval stores industry, timber harvest to fuel construction, conversion of former pinelands to agriculture, and exclusion of fire by a rapidly growing population. At one time, native Virginia longleaf pine was no longer measured in acres, but in numbers of individual trees. Fortunately, the Virginia Longleaf Pine Cooperators Group – including government agencies, universities, and nonprofits – has worked along with private landowners to restore this valuable tree to much of its former range. Today Virginia has 8000 acres of longleaf…and counting.

Young longleaf pines

Longleaf cone production is notoriously inconsistent, and 2020 validated this observation. About 100 trees at South Quay produce cones in a typical year, but 2020 turned out to be anything but typical. Early field predictions for longleaf cone production in the Southeast were described as ‘minimal’, ‘well below normal’ or even ‘non-existent’. While about 75 trees at South Quay were scouted, only 25 trees had enough cones to harvest, producing only five bushels of cones. Another three bushels of longleaf cones were harvested at New Kent. Unfortunately, the low harvest will limit the number of Virginia native longleaf seedlings produced at Garland Gray Nursery next year. (The nursery grows longleaf seedlings from “northern source” trees, because research has shown they possess characteristics that enhance growth and survival in the northern part of the tree’s range.)

Green longleaf cones waiting to dry and open

A special thanks goes out to the following individuals who braved the heat, mosquitoes and heavy brush to help in the collection process: Rebecca Wilson, Longleaf Pine Coordinator, DCR – Natural Heritage Program; Darren Loomis, Southeast Region Steward, DCR – Natural Heritage Program; Jim Schroering – VDOF Longleaf Pine Coordinator; Manij Upadhyay, VDOF Blackwater Area Forester (and fearless cone picker trainee), Jim Blackwell, VDOF Waverly Area Forest Technician, Dennis Gaston, VDOF Eastern State Forests Forester and Ben Duke, VDOF Eastern State Forests Technician.

For more information on the battle to save longleaf pine, read VDOF’s restoration report. Want to be a part of the recovery? If you live in southeastern Virginia and think your land might be a good candidate for growing longleaf, contact your local VDOF office to learn more.

Field Notes: An Oak with Special Roots

by Patti Nylander, Senior Area Forester

Every year the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) puts out the call to citizens across the Commonwealth to collect acorns to be planted at the Augusta Forestry Center (AFC) in Crimora for next year’s seedling crop.  The acorns are prepped for planting through a rigorous process — to separate the good nuts from the bad — that involves a huge fan, a 55-gallon drum of water and a short stay in a cold storage facility. Once the acorns are prepared, they are loaded into a machine and planted in the fall. 

Acorn planting, 2019.

The seedlings are grown, fertilized, weeded and watered all through the summer.  Following some good heavy frosts, the trees are lifted, boxed, shipped, and planted throughout the landscape.  It’s an incredible process, and I have always been fascinated by the amount of work that goes into producing a one-year-old seedling to sell to a landowner or homeowner.  Just about all of the work is still done by hand, from collecting acorns to boxing the trees.  

I try to do my part by bringing acorns that people have collected back to the nursery in Crimora, which is where my office is also located.  I’m always on the lookout for some good “collecting trees” for the nursery staff, too — trees in church yards, playgrounds, city parks, and even homeowners’ yards (with permission).  You can’t imagine how happy a landowner is to learn that someone else will actually come and collect those “pesky walnuts” or “murderous chestnuts” from their yards!  

This year, I came across a special tree — a Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) that was planted as part of a State Lands Project almost 30 years ago.  This oak on the edge of the planting area was loaded with acorns this year!  I decided to come back to this tree and collect my obligatory bucket’s worth of acorns to give to the staff at the nursery.  

This tree is very special because it was “born” at Augusta Forestry Center.  In 1991, this planting project was completed using trees from the VDOF nursery.  Now, almost 30 years later, I am taking the acorns back to the nursery to be planted for next year’s crop.  

Unlike our loblolly pine seedlings, where we know exactly where every seedling comes from in our orchard, the acorns that arrive at the nursery are “wild” collections – they come from all over Virginia and are separated only by species. Therefore, in most cases, we don’t know the parentage of the oak seedlings we sell. (Occasionally, acorns collected from a specific tree, such as the Jamestown cherrybark oak, ARE planted and sold separately because of their desirable parentage.) 

I made my way back to the Northern red oak with my daughter to collect the acorns and was a little disappointed to see that a lot were still up in the tree.  Many had fallen, but the area had been mowed in the last week, so a lot of the nuts we found had been hacked in half.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed a beautiful fall day using our high-tech nut rollers to collect a small number of acorns that will be planted with all of the other Northern red oak acorns this fall.  

Although my acorns will not be set aside and sold as a special tree, and many will end up failing the good nut/bad nut test, they still represent the impact VDOF field staff has in Virginia.  Mark Hollberg was the VDOF area forester who worked in Augusta County before I transferred here 17 years ago.  In fulfilling the expectations of his job, he planted these trees to improve the environment, add scenic beauty and reduce mowing on a State Lands property, as well as to educate people about the benefits of trees.  The acorns that are planted this fall will give rise to oak seedlings that will be planted as part of another project that VDOF will have a hand in coordinating.  

One can hope that in another 29 years, someone in the next generation of VDOF field staff will find themselves under an oak whose roots are known and can be traced back to a seedling planted at our nursery.    

VDOF Pine Projects Continue Despite Unusual Circumstances

In late March, VDOF personnel completed a longleaf pine grafting project at the New Kent Forestry Center (NKFC). The longleaf pine seed orchard at NKFC has been developed in response to a need for consistent crop production to support restoration efforts for this diminished species.

Read more: From the Brink! The Effort to Restore Virginia’s Native Longleaf Pine, 2014 Status Report

This year during a three-day period, a crew collected and grafted 97 scion. Scion are approximately five- to eight-inch buds cut from older, established longleaf trees in the orchard.  By top-grafting the scion (explained below with photos) onto established three- to four-foot tall root stock, VDOF’s tree improvement team can achieve two things:

  • Create an orchard selection from a known parent – a successful graft will be an exact duplicate or clone of its parent.
  • Stimulate early flower production – grafted trees will produce cones and seed sooner than non-grafted trees.

The longleaf pine project is an attempt to preserve the genetics of the very few (<200) remaining Virginia-native longleaf pines. Research has found that these trees are uniquely adapted to the climate and soil conditions here at the northern limit of their range. Because grafted trees are clones of their parents, this process allows VDOF to save as much of this genetic base as possible for future seed/seedling production.

Longleaf Pine Grafting Process in Photos


Ones Bitoki (tree improvement manager) has cut the terminal bud from the root stock and grafted a scion in its place.


Dennis Gaston (eastern area state forests manager) has wrapped a grafted scion with rubber grafting bands which will hold everything in place until it begins to grow together.

The new grafts are first wrapped with rubber grafting bands, which was noted in the previous photo.  Next they are wrapped with parafilm which helps to seal the graft and keep out insects or any elements which may harm the graft.  Finally, it is wrapped in aluminum foil, adding another layer of protection. In this photo, Jerre Creighton (research program manager) is wrapping a graft in foil.


We tag each graft with the parent tree number and the grafting date for our records.  In this photo, Jim Schroering (southern pine beetle and longleaf pine coordinator) has tagged a completed graft.


Wrapped Graft
This photo shows a completed graft wrapped with the rubber bands and parafilm.


Successfull 2019 graft
This photo shows one of VDOF’s successful grafts that was done in 2019.

Another Pine Project at NKFC

Grafting wasn’t the only work that took place at NKFC during this time.  During March, Jeff Stout (tree improvement technician) removed trees from the third cycle loblolly pine orchard that have been cut or “rogued” from the orchard.

As the orchard matures, trees that rank lowest in productivity scoring are removed, which in turn increases the overall productivity of the remaining families due to open pollination of all the trees throughout the orchard.

This orchard is not managed like a pine plantation because the desired outcomes are different.  We reduce the area between trees as they grow to reduce competition so the orchard trees will grow outward rather than upward (which would be preferable in a pine plantation.) The wider the trees are, the more limbs they have and thus more cone production.

Jeff is removing one of the cut orchard trees using an articulated loader with clamp attachment.

Field Notes: A Sure Sign of Spring!

by VDOF Senior Area Forester Scott Bachman

It is not quite spring, but the signs of spring are abundant at the New Kent Forestry Center.  The photo below shows one of the first signs of spring.


The loblolly pine trees appear to have grown paper bags on their tips!  These contractors are placing bags on the trees to protect the soon-to-be receptive pine flowers (Strobli) from wind-blown pollen.  That brings up an obvious question, why?

These trees are destined to be used for control pollination seed production.  Control pollinated trees are some of the most highly desired tree seedlings that the VDOF produces.  They are desirable because the parentage of the seedlings is known.  These trees are like fine race horses, a flower from a fast growing tree is crossed with pollen from another fast growing tree.  The bags are essential to this process.

“In nature, loblolly pine trees typically are pollinated at random with the possibility of self-pollination, though rare, because of the way pollen and flowers are disposed on the tree,” explains VDOF Tree Improvement Forester, Onesphore Bitoki.


“In general most of the flowers are in the top part of the tree crown while most of the pollen is at the bottom of the tree crown on the same tree.”

Loblolly pine trees in the forest are pollinated by the wind. Another sure sign of spring is finding your car covered in a fine yellow/green dust — loblolly pollen!  The tree improvement staff can use this to their advantage.  They can cover the flowers in a seed orchard tree with a bag and then inject pollen into the bag from a known fast-growing tree.  The resulting seed produced in the cone will have the high quality genetics of the two parent trees.

The covering of the branch tips is just the first step on a long process.  After the pollen season is over, the bags are removed from the tree and the cones marked.  Not all cones on a tree are “bagged” so each tip that was control pollinated must be tracked for 18 months before it is picked.  Pollinated cones will grow and develop seeds over the next two summers.  These high value cones, as well as our other orchard trees, are also managed to control insects that would like to eat the growing seed in the cones.

When the cones are finally mature they are harvested in Fall, typically in October, using high lifts or bucket trucks making sure the marked cones are kept separate from wind pollinated cones. Each cone is hand-picked and placed into marked containers identifying their “parents.”  This “name” will stay with each cone as it is dried and the seed removed, prepared for planting, planted, harvested at the nursery, packaged and ultimately sold to a landowner.  Like a fine race horse, this new fast growing pine stand can trace a pedigree back to these paper bags in the New Kent Forestry Center.

Field Notes: How do Trees Grow in the Nursery?

by Area Forester Manij Upadhyay

I went to Garland Gray Forestry Center, Courtland Virginia to learn about pine seedling production last week. Our nurseries have been growing quality seedlings based on research and experience for 100 years. The day that I arrived at the nursery people were lifting seedlings from the bed with the help of a machine called a lifter.

Full bed belt lifter

Do you know how seedlings are grown in nurseries?

Selection of the best seed is the most important part of nursery production.  Seeds are collected from fast-growing, straight and disease-resistant trees. In southeast Virginia, the best time for seed sowing is spring. Regular watering and application of fertilizer is required for growth and development of the seedlings. In addition, treatment techniques to protect seedlings from various insects, diseases and weeds are used.

During the production of seedlings, shoot and root pruning practices are used. These techniques help to increase crop uniformity, control height, and prepare the seedlings for shipping.

Most bare root seedlings are taken out from the seedbed in the winter. Seedling lifters and transporters are used for lifting and transporting the plants from the field to the grading building.

Seedling transporter

During packing, seedlings are graded separately based on size and quality.  Packed seedlings are then stored in cool temperatures. Stored seedlings go dormant for shipping. Fully dormant seedlings survive better during shipment, and after planting than non-dormant seedling.

Landowners can expect excellent survival rates on our seedlings. Our young trees can be expected to grow fast and have good form for timber production.

Loblolly pine seedling beds

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? Dec. 5, 2017

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Baby Longleaf

Last week was finally time to plant a longleaf pine project.  The landowner had spent over a year preparing a 17-acre cutover site for these seedlings.  Longleaf pine is known for its very long needles, huge pine cones, very strong “heart pine” lumber, and the naval stores it can produce.  The longleaf seedlings are in the planters’ bags.

longleaf planting crew

As you can see, the planting crew was ready to go to work early in the morning.  The loblolly pine plantation on the left is 21 years old.  It was precommercially thinned at age 10, understory burned at age 14, and commercially thinned at age 17.  The area to the right of the road was clearcut to make room for the longleaf plantation.

planters on road

In 3-4 years, the new plantation should look something like this:

suffolk plantation

Longleaf pine used to be part of 1.5 million acres of forest in the southeastern corner of Virginia until around 1700.  Its presence allowed for the beginning of the ship-building industry in Hampton Roads.  However, the historic harvest of longleaf lumber and naval stores, the conversion of forest to farm fields, and the exclusion of fire helped lead to the decline of longleaf pine in Virginia’s landscape.  A great deal of research has been conducted on how to reestablish longleaf pine in Virginia.  Our hope is to increase species richness and biodiversity at the northern limit of where longleaf pine can grow.

baby longleaf

One discovery is that planting containerized seedlings in the fall, as opposed to bare-root seedlings in the early spring, is more successful.

open field planting

Sometimes landowners decide to plant agricultural fields back into trees.  These planting rows were “scalped” to remove the roots of grasses that could compete for water, nutrients, and sunlight with the longleaf seedlings.  A “ripper” was also used to break up compacted soil so that the longleaf roots can grow deep.  The ripper is in the “up” position in this photo.  It is the white looking piece of metal.

scalping plow n tractor


You Can Help Ensure Virginia has More Hardwoods!

The Virginia Department of Forestry needs your help to continue producing quality seedlings for Virginia landowners. Virginia-grown seed generally produces trees that will grow well in our state. Every year, homeowners from all over the state donate acorns and other seed to help us produce the next season’s crop. Seed collection is a great activity for children and adults. It’s also a wonderful way to learn more about Virginia trees. Every year, homeowners spend countless hours raking up acorns and wonder what to do with them. We have the answer… donate your acorns to the Virginia Department of Forestry! VDOF needs seeds and acorns from the following trees:

  • Black Oak
  • Black Walnut
  • Chinese Chestnut
  • Chestnut Oak
  • Live Oak
  • Northern Red Oak
  • Pin Oak
  • Sawtooth Oak
  • Southern Red Oak
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak
  • Swamp White Oak
  • White Oak
  • Willow Oak

It is easy to pick up a lot of these seeds during the months of September and October in many yards and parking lots.  When collecting the seeds, please follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Make sure the tree is correctly identified.
  2. Try to keep as much trash out as possible (sticks, leaves, gravel, etc.).
  3. It doesn’t matter if acorns still have the caps on them or not.
  4. Place the seed in a breathable sack or bag (No plastic bags please!).
  5. One type of seed should not be mixed with another (For example: white oak acorns should be in one bag and red oak acorns should be in another).
  6. Make sure the bag of seed is labeled and dated correctly.
  7. Once the seed is collected, place in a cool area (Seed will spoil if it is over heated).
  8. Bring the seed into the the nearest VDOF office no later than October 16.

Find out more and get info to help ID acorns. If you need help identifying a tree, have questions about the process or need directions please contact Joshua at 540-363-7000.