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.

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

 

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

 

Gaston
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.

Creighton
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.

 

Schroering
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.

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

Field Notes: Protecting the Northern Source Longleaf

By Senior Area Forester Scott Bachman

The official start of spring may be only weeks away, but forester Scott Bachman doesn’t want to breeze past the (briefly) snowy landscape of southeastern Virginia. The scene highlights a unique landscape feature that VDOF is working to protect – the northern seed source of longleaf pine.

Several weeks ago, the southeastern counties and cities of Virginia received their first and only snow of this winter (so far!)  As you might expect, the few inches of wet snow created a spectacular landscape that was so different from our typical winter landscapes of earth tones and greens.  It was remarkable to see the contrast of bright white against our pine-hardwood forests.  A young longleaf pine stand provided a particularly unique vista.

 

longleaf_bachman_blog_2020

longleaf_bachman_blog_2020_2
Longleaf on Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation property in Isle of Wight, called the Antioch Pines of the Blackwater Pine Barrens.

Once a representative tree of the Deep South, longleaf pine is now a diminished species in Virginia. The City of Suffolk contains the last larger acreage of native longleaf pine in the Commonwealth.  The seed source from this stand is being protected and harvested of seed producing cones by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Heritage program.

Why is this important? The trees of our native longleaf seed source exhibit characteristics that are somewhat different than trees from farther south.  VDOF research staff has tested local seed source trees against other sources and can verify this difference.

Are our “northern source” trees better able to withstand a blanket of snow?  I don’t know that we can yet answer this with certainty, but the genetics are certainly worth protecting.

 

 

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? June 25, 2018

Bird’s Eye View

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

DOA Cessna lo res (1)

Once a year, area foresters have the opportunity to fly over VDOF work areas to check for forest health issues and evaluate herbicide work from the previous summer.   We meet planes and pilots from the Virginia Department of Aviation at local airports, provide them with a flying route and then take off down the runway.

take off

The hour-long flight covers several counties, so we take a lot of photos to review back at the office.

taking photos

These flights are called “Green Streak Flights” because we are making sure tracts that were aerially sprayed with herbicide received the coverage guaranteed by the contractor.

Managing Pine

On the Middle Peninsula, the warm, rainy climate and long growing season help clearcut harvests “overpopulate” the land with natural pine and hardwood seedlings, as well as grasses, forbs, and vines.  In order to maximize pine growth, research has pointed towards several site preparation options.  One option is to spray the tract after its first full growing season with herbicide to control the natural vegetation before planting pines.

Basically, spraying a tract and planting genetically improved pine seedlings provides faster growth than would occur if the naturally seeded trees competed with each other for several years to see which ones would win the contest for enough sunshine, water, nutrients and space to survive.  We plant loblolly pine seedlings at 484 trees per acre; nature sometimes seeds in clearcuts with 2000 seedlings per acre.  It is a lot like planting a garden; you need to prepare the planting site first by removing the weeds, then planting your vegetables.

Prior to herbicide treatment, VDOF foresters map all of the tracts that will be treated and provides the aerial spray contractor with a map and Shapefile.  The VDOF foresters may also flag hard to see spray boundaries on the ground with white plastic trash bags and colored ribbon.

Safety

Aerial and ground broadcast spray application performed under VDOF contracts is not allowed within 50 feet of interstates and primary highways; within 50 feet of flowing streams or drainage ditches, or 100 feet of impoundments, except public water supply lakes where no treatment shall be allowed within 500 feet, and trout streams where no treatment shall be allowed within 200 feet; within 300 feet of any residence, store, or other building normally housing people or within 500 feet of any school, hospital, or other public gathering place unless written permission has been obtained.  These treatments are also only done during calm days when the wind is less than five miles per hour.

The View from Above

In the photo below, some “green streaks” of vegetation that were not sprayed are outlined in red.  The aerial spray contractor sent a ground crew with backpack sprayers to cover the areas missed by the helicopter.

Dame greenstreaks

Here (below) is what a “green streak” looks like on the ground.

skinny streak

The next photo shows an active southern pine beetle spot with some dead pines and red-topped dying pines.  In this case, we can contact the landowners about harvesting the beetle infestation before it spreads.

beetle spot

Our area had received several inches of rain in the weeks prior to our flight on June 6.  So, it was no surprise to see standing water in cutovers on flat terrain.  Hopefully, the puddles in the photo below will last long enough to provide water to recently planted loblolly pine seedlings without drowning their roots.

wet land

The photo below shows an area of Dragon Run State Forest that was prescribed burned to prepare the site for planting trees the following spring.  From the air, we can see a few small green patches in the cutover that did not burn so well.

Dragon Burn 1

Burning as a site preparation method provides a quick return of nutrients to the soil and is a less expensive means of removing competing vegetation than herbicide.  Burning also provides a mineral seed bed for many grasses and forbs that benefit wildlife.

The Green Streaks flights are quick, but provide us with a great deal of information to help us protect and develop healthy, sustainable forest resources for Virginians.

S Gloucester view
Southern end of Gloucester County looking south towards the York River and Yorktown.

More information on the pine management activities mentioned in this article is available at http://www.dof.virginia.gov/manage/pine/how-to.htm.

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.

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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.

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“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.