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.    

Field Notes: Mighty Oaks from Little Acorns

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

There’s an old saying that you plant an oak tree for your grandchildren. There’s some truth to that, as oaks are not the fastest growing trees. But along the way to maturity, they provide benefits to us and to the environment. Shade? Check. Beauty? Check. Acorns for hungry wildlife? Check.

Oaks do grow acorns, but just as importantly, oaks grow caterpillars. More than 500 species of moth and butterfly caterpillars feed on the leaves of the oak genus, Quercus. That’s important because 96 percent of terrestrial birds feed caterpillars to their young. Sure, you can attract birds to your yard with a feeder full of seed. You can make them stick around by encouraging native fruit and seed-producing plants. But if you want to help them raise young birds, plant oak trees.

Orange-striped oakworm (Anisota senatoria)

Flora of Virginia lists 27 species of native oaks in our state. All are in the same genus, but they have different environmental requirements and characteristics. Some are shrubby and short-lived, but others reach massive proportions and live over 400 years. Some thrive in moist Coastal Plain river bottoms, while others eke out an existence on rocky mountain ridges. Clearly, choosing the best oak for your yard takes a little planning.

White oak leaf and acorn (Quercus alba)

The Virginia Department of Forestry’s (VDOF) hardwood nursery in Augusta County grows ten species of oaks for sale as seedlings. Each autumn, seedling sales begin, along with planning and planting for the next year’s seedling crop. The nursery enlists the public’s help to find enough acorns to plant. If you’d like to help, check out the acorn collection program, including details on what species to collect and how to store them. Just make sure to deliver your acorns to your local VDOF office by October 16.

Willow oak leaves and acorns (Quercus phellos)

Not sure which acorn is which? No problem! VDOF staff can identify them – we’re awesome and nerdy like that. But just to be safe, drop a leaf or two from the tree in the paper bag. You can also see great photos of oak species (and other trees on Virginia Tech’s Tree Fact Sheets website.

L-R: Acorns from chestnut oak, northern red oak, black oak, white oak, pin oak, willow oak, southern red oak

VDOF hopes you’ll plant an oak, or two, or ten this fall. Do it for the birds – and do it for your grandchildren!

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.