Field Notes: Longleaf Pine Planting at Big Woods

By Jim Schroering, VDOF Longleaf Pine/Southern Pine Beetle Coordinator

On a cold but sunny Saturday in December, the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) completed a longleaf pine planting project on their Big Woods State Forest (BWSF). Longleaf pine once covered more than 1,000,000 acres in Virginia, but it is now considered a diminished species. Until 25 years ago, only 200 mature longleaf pines were left in southeast Virginia. Longleaf pine now covers approximately 8,000 acres in the state, thanks to VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia, a cooperative group of state, local, and federal agencies, private landowners, and non-governmental organizations.

Planting crew at work

The 41-acre BWSF tract planted on December 19 was originally an industrial loblolly pine plantation. The timber was clearcut earlier in 2020, and the tract was burned in July to prepare the site for planting. Dennis Gaston, VDOF State Forest forester, managed the timber sale, burning, planting contract, and field supervision. Through a generous grant from the Arbor Day Foundation, 23,000 native longleaf pine containerized seedlings grown at VDOF’s Garland Gray Nursery were purchased and planted at BWSF. An experienced planting crew from South Carolina was hired to plant the trees. Dennis Gaston and the crew foreman supervised the planting operation to ensure the trees were planted properly and to the correct spacing.

Newly planted longleaf seedling

Southeastern Virginia is at the northern limit of the native range for longleaf pine. VDOF and the Longleaf Cooperators of Virginia have been working for more than 20 years to reestablish longleaf pine in its native Virginia habitat, thus providing a unique ecological niche which had been functionally eliminated. It is hoped that by adding longleaf pine to this site, both the plant and animal diversity on Big Woods State Forest will increase. An additional benefit will be the reintroduction of fire to the ecosystem in order to properly manage the new stand.

Special thanks for the successful completion of this project go to Jennifer Moon and Bradley Brandt at the Arbor Day Foundation, H and H Forestry, Elder and his seasoned crew of tree planters, the VDOF staff at Garland Gray Nursery, and Dennis Gaston.

Field Notes: When Volunteers Go Bad

by Sarah Parmelee, Area Forester

Last fall, a little seedling popped up in my yard. It was too young to be readily identifiable, so I left it on the off chance that it was something cool. This spring when it leafed out, I realized that it was a butterfly bush.

Butterfly bush.

Now, I do not have any other butterfly bushes in my yard, but other folks in my neighborhood do, and this “volunteer” bush in my yard likely came from seeds spread from a neighbor’s yard. Aside from non-native butterfly bushes, my neighbors also have non-native Japanese barberry, burning bush, and Bradford pear that they care for and maintain as part of their landscaping.

Our choices for landscaping may seem innocent enough, but what we plant in our yards matters to our neighbors and our forests because plants like to spread. Some will spread through roots or rhizomes like mints, irises and tree-of-heaven. Others like sycamore, mulberry or cockleburs will produce seeds that disperse in the wind or will be spread by animals. In a yard with a mowed lawn and weeded flowerbeds, there may be few “volunteers” popping up, but downwind, downstream or along paths taken by wildlife, there may be many.

Why does this matter? Many of the plants that we plant in our yards and gardens are not native to this area (such as the plants in my neighbors’ yard mentioned earlier.) Plant species spend thousands of years developing important relationships within the place where they grow. This includes relationships between plants and pollinating insects, as well as with larger critters such as birds and deer. When we take a plant that has evolved to live in and contribute to its local ecosystem and replace it with a plant that’s native to an ecosystem halfway across the world, we disrupt many of these relationships.

Plants that do not have these developed relationships with the other native fauna are not as easily controlled because they have few natural predators. For example, deer like to eat the growing tips of native hardwood trees like oak seedlings, but they do not like to eat the tips of tree-of-heaven or Japanese barberry (both non-native, invasive species.) Therefore, when the seeds of these non-native plants disperse, there are no plant predators to slow their growth and spread. This contributes to the widespread infestation of private and public forestland with various non-native plants, some of which were first introduced in our landscaped yards. This is detrimental to forest health because these plants do not support important insects (think about pollinators!) and compete with native plants for resources such as sunlight and water.

There’s good news, however: you can help!  As the weather warms and we focus on our gardens and landscape plans, I encourage you to take a moment to research what you are planting in your yard. For example, a quick Google search will show that butterfly bush is actually bad for butterflies, and local pollinators would be better served if you plant a spicebush or flowering dogwood. There are many trusted resources available to help folks find native plants that work with their landscaping, such as the Virginia Native Plant Society, which provides regional guides for the whole state.

A volunteer yellow-poplar tree!

If we bring native plants back into our yards and lives, we will be giving a helping hand to the many important insects and other critters that are so important for keeping our forests healthy and beautiful.

Although the butterfly bush was an undesirable discovery, I have also found yellow-poplar, flowering dogwood and sycamores in my garden that have spread there from trees in the neighborhood. Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of spreading harmful plants we could inadvertently spread lots of good ones?


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: Good Green, Bad Green

By Ellen Powell, Conservation Educator

The calendar and the plants agree – spring has arrived in central Virginia!

Patches of green among the leaf litter mean spring wildflowers are making their annual appearance. Often called “ephemerals,” for their short-lived bloom time, those in flower this week include pennywort (Obolaria virginica), star chickweed (Stellaria pubera) and wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

Pennywort (Obolaria virginica).

Star chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum).

Unfortunately, the shrub layer of many hardwood forests reveals a “dark side” of spring. Quite a few invasive plants green up earlier than native shrubs. These include wineberry, barberry, privet, multiflora rose and autumn olive.

Autumn Olive
Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata).

The pale green plants in this picture are autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), a non-native invasive shrub that often displaces the natural shrub understory. If you smell something cloyingly sweet while hiking, the culprit may be autumn olive in bloom. The tiny, tubular flowers will make way for red berries this summer.

A silver lining? The berries are high in lycopene and antioxidants, and they’re edible. So, pick as many as you can, before the birds spread them even farther!



In Virginia, you know spring is just around the corner when you begin to see blooms on cherry, magnolia, pear, redbud and dogwood trees.

These same signs of spring can serve as a reminder that it’s a good time to assess the plants growing on your property and make a plan to get rid of the invasive species.

Non-native invasive plants usually have rapid reproductive rates, lack natural control agents and out-compete native species — that is, they can completely take over a landscape!

There are numerous invasive plant species in Virginia, ranging from grasses and vines, to shrubs and trees. The Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation Natural, Heritage Division maintains a list of plant species that pose a threat to the Commonwealth’s forests, native grasslands, wetlands or waterways.

Four significant species that are common throughout the southeastern U.S. are tree-of-heaven, Japanese honeysuckle, Chinese privet and Callery (or Bradford) pear. You can read more about each species on these factsheets.

tree of heavenhoneysuckle
bradford pear

Removing invasive plants often requires substantial effort and patience, but the reward is a natural area composed of diverse native plants. If you are successful in eradicating invasive plants on your property, congratulations! But what’s next? The work does not stop there. Now it’s time to replace the invasive species with native alternatives. Without planned replacement, those pesky invasive plants may just creep back onto your property.

Check out the AlterNATIVES factsheet for native alternatives that will keep your yard beautiful and the planet healthy!


These factsheets were created by the Southern Group of State Foresters, Forest Health Committee.

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 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.



Forest Health: A Small But Mighty Pest

The southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis) (SPB) is a small, seemingly innocuous beetle that brings new meaning to the phrase “small but mighty.” These beetles are known as the most destructive native forest insect in the Southeastern United States. While a single adult beetle is only about 1/8 inch long, the ability to aggregate quickly means these tiny insects can overtake a pine tree’s defenses in a short period of time. All species of southern pine are targets for SPB but favorite hosts include loblolly, shortleaf, Virginia and pitch pine.SPBpic1

Females emerge first in the spring and fly to a suitable host where they bore into the tree and start creating their infamous “S”-shaped galleries in preparation for laying eggs after mating. Shortly after, they emit a pheromone (think seductive bug perfume) and the masses begin flocking to the suitable host tree. Each female is prolific with her egg production, producing upwards of 150 eggs over the course of her life! These eggs are laid in the galleries where the developing larvae then feed on the inner bark. As trees are killed or fill up with beetles, the outbreak spreads to neighboring trees and continues until suitable host material is no longer found or control measures are taken.SPBpic2

Historically, outbreaks of these destructive insects have been cyclical, occurring on average every five to seven years. Since they are native, they have a predator complex which helps control the populations and regulate outbreaks. However, since the early 2000s these outbreaks have been less common and almost non-existent here in Virginia. Many factors may contribute to the decrease in southern pine beetle abundance, including more intensive silvicultural practices, genetically improved trees and forest fragmentation.

The last big southern pine beetle occurrence noted in Virginia was first detected in 2012, and had become a full outbreak by 2014. This took place on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The U.S. Forest Service observed the outbreak in 2016 from the air, and documented an average of 46 active SPB spots per thousand acres of host type. The average spot size calculated to be 1.5 acres. When a ground check was done, all spots visited had active adult, larvae and eggs, indicating that the population was still thriving. This area was hit particularly hard due to many factors: most of the pine was over-mature, overstocked and stressed from saltwater intrusion leading to a beetle buffet, ripe for the picking!

Unfortunately, no control efforts were enacted and the population continued to spread and the outbreak ultimately died out on its own. VDOF Forest Health staff flew the impacted area in October of 2018 and mapped 475 acres of pine mortality.


To monitor populations and predict future beetle spots, each year VDOF Forest Health sets up traps that are baited with pheromones mimicking the ones produced by females and stressed trees throughout the state. Trapping starts in spring, around the time that beetles would start looking for suitable trees. Last year, we trapped in 10 counties, placing a total of 24 traps around the state. VDOF foresters and Virginia Department of Conservation & Recreation employees sample each week and VDOF Forest Health sorts the contents, counting the number of SPB caught as well as their associated natural predator, the clerid beetle. The good news for Virginia is that our SPB population levels continue to persist at low and static levels! We will continue to monitor these insects and their activity (or lack thereof!) and trapping efforts are planned for spring of 2019.