Field Notes: Fruits of Fall

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

With the autumn foliage season getting underway, it’s easy to miss a key feature of Virginia’s fall landscape: fruits.

First, a disclaimer: Don’t eat wild fruits unless you can identify them positively and know they are safe. Many can be eaten by wildlife, but are toxic or even deadly to humans.

Fruits of hollies, like this winterberry (Ilex verticillata), are toxic to humans.

In wildlife circles, fleshy or squishy fruit eaten by critters is known collectively as soft mast. Nuts and seeds are called hard mast, for obvious reasons. Both are good sources of nutrition for birds and mammals alike. Any hunter can tell you the value of hard mast for game species, but that’s a topic for another time. Soft mast is available to almost all omnivorous and herbivorous species. Songbirds, gamebirds, squirrels, foxes, raccoons, opossums, rodents, deer and bears take advantage of soft mast this time of year.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)

Some of the plants that turn red early in fall do so in part to draw the attention of birds. Sumac, sassafras, Virginia creeper, dogwood, black gum and even poison ivy exhibit this foliar flagging strategy. Flashing red among the green leaves of early fall is a beacon to birds – a way for plants to get their fruits noticed, eaten and spread. In many cases, these fruits have a relatively high fat content, making them especially desirable for migrating songbirds.

Ripe persimmons, ready to fall

In contrast, some fall fruits hang around for a good while. Ripening persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) can be seen on trees in late summer, but anyone who’s had their mouth turned inside out by a green one knows that it pays to wait for them to turn orange and soft. By late October, these astringent fruits become sticky-sweet, with an almost jam-like consistency. Other fruits that may taste better to wildlife after a few cycles of freezing and thawing include hollies, hackberries, chokeberries, crabapples and some viburnums.

Autumn olive fruits

Invasive species can be prolific fall fruiters. The sweet, red, silver-dotted berries of autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) have been found to be less nutritious for local birds than fruits of native plants. The birds don’t seem to care. Like kids eating Skittles, they gorge on autumn olive fruits and “plant” them everywhere. As a result, the shrubs are a forest understory and field pest throughout much of the state.

They’re NOT grapes – they’re porcelainberries!

Porcelainberry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is an invasive that produces some truly hard “soft” mast. Tough and inedible to humans, the fruits are arguably among the most beautiful you’ll see, displaying a range of green, white, blue and shades of purple, often in one cluster. But make no mistake, this vine is bad news. It has an aggressive sprawling and climbing habit that rivals kudzu, easily covering trees with its dense foliage. Its resemblance to wild grapevines has probably contributed to its alarming spread in some parts of Virginia. By the time you realize those aren’t grapes, you may have a serious problem!

Not all weeds are exotic; some are Virginia natives that benefit wildlife despite having traits we hate. Take pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), a hulking native perennial that’s toxic to eat and has irritating sap. That doesn’t stop birds from loving the berries. If you’ve ever found bright fuchsia bird droppings on your car, thank pokeweed. Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) is another “weed” with toxic fruit that birds can eat without consequence. The berries are white and waxy when ripe, a contrast to the foliage that makes the plant quite lovely, if you can be objective about it.

Pokeberry juice is as bright pink as those stems.
Beautyberry – the name says it all.

In eastern Virginia, you may encounter a berry that’s so shockingly colored you’ll think it must be an ornamental gone wild. If so, you may be looking at American beautyberry, Callicarpa americana. This species has been exported all over the world for its striking purple fruit. Hopefully our native hasn’t become invasive for anyone else.


Some fall-fruiting natives give wildlife a two-for-one benefit: they provide both soft mast and winter shelter. Greenbriers (Smilax species) are evergreen to semi-evergreen. They produce a shiny black fruit eaten by many birds, and their dense thorny growth provides a place for birds to roost, safe from predators. Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) has frosty blue fruits and thick evergreen boughs that provide thermal cover, especially during winter storms.

Eastern redcedar

When you’re outdoors this month, take a close look for the fruits of fall. They may be small, but they provide a spectacular autumn color show of their own.

Red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? Sept. 5, 2018

by Forester Lisa Deaton


Every August, our agency assists the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries with their Mast Survey.  Mast is not just a word to describe the tall post on ships; it is also a term used to describe the fruit of trees and plants that provide food sources for wildlife. Trees do not bear the same amount of fruit (i.e. nuts) reliably from year to year, so field staff are asked to rate the amount of fruit production on a dozen important mast species throughout the state.

Two weeks ago in York County, we found several species loaded with their fruit.


These (above) are pawpaws, which will turn dark brown when they ripen.  If you happen to find some, the pulp can be eaten raw (watch out for the seeds), or Kentucky State University offers a list of recipes.


The persimmons are still green, and will be ready to eat after a hard freeze when they are orange and sweet.  If you bite into a green one, you are in for a bitter surprise.


The flowering dogwood berries are also still green (above), and were easy to see on this branch because caterpillars had eaten the leaves.


Each brown husk on this American beech (above) holds two beech nuts.


These hickory nuts (above) are already on the ground, but a storm probably blew them out of a tree earlier this summer before they fully ripened.  Whether or not the squirrels will eat them remains to be seen.  Black bears, gray foxes, rabbits, mice, raccoons, quail, turkey, crows, blue jays and other birds also eat hickory nuts.

We are still conducting our surveys, but the mast production on Virginia’s peninsulas looks promising.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? Feb. 21, 2018

Owls and Berries

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Last week began with finding an owl pellet in my yard.  Lately I have been hearing the call of great horned owls.  In the past, we have seen barred owls and eastern screech-owls.

owl pellet

There are many good branches on the loblolly pine directly overhead for an owl to perch and digest a meal.

owl roost pine

I took a second look at the pellet after the rain, and the fur and bones could be from a squirrel.  The longest bones are 2 1/2 inches long.

wet owl pellet

Flocks of cedar waxwings have also been passing through.  When a whole flock feeds on the berries of an eastern redcedar or holly, it looks like the tree is waving all of its branches at you at once.

We found more berries while working with the Hampton Clean City Commission to plan a new “Central Park” in the City of Hampton.   The hackberry below was still holding fruit.  We did not study it closely enough to determine if it was a sugarberry, hackberry or dwarf hackberry.

hackberry berries

And, this greenbrier was heavily loaded with fruit.

saw greenbrier berries

We also noticed a slash pine with ripening male catkins that will produce pollen in the near future.

slash catkins


Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today?

by Lisa Deaton, VDOF Area Forester

It’s Deer Time!

Last week I walked around a forested property to prepare a Stewardship Plan for a private landowner.  It felt like I had entered the kingdom of deer.  With new food sources ripening every day and the excitement of mating season, the white-tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus, are on the move.  Many people are familiar with the sight of buck rubs on small trees and woody shrubs, but bucks will also lick low-hanging branches until there are no leaves left.   licking stick 2

They also scrape patches of soil to mark their territory with scent. buck scrape from deers direction.jpg

Strawberry bush, Euonymos americanus, sometimes referred to as deer candy, is fruiting.  It looks a little bit like someone has hung party decorations in the woods; but as brightly colored as it is, it can be easy to miss.

Persimmons, Diospyros virginiana, are ripe as well.  You may notice that one persimmon tree is loaded with fruit, while others bear none.  This is because persimmon trees are dioecious. That means there are female trees and male trees. persimmons zoom

I also encountered a flock of about 20 black vultures, Coragyps atratus, roosting in a large white oak tree near a creek.  The noise of them taking flight caught me off guard and I was only able to catch a photo of these two buzzards. two buzzards.jpg

I went back a few days later to see if I could photograph the vultures roosting in the oak tree, but they were on the side of the highway consuming a deer carcass.  It was deer time for them, too!