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.

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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.

American Chestnut Harvest at Lesesne State Forest

Chestnut trees have all but disappeared from the landscape; the Virginia Department of Forestry recently had a rare opportunity to harvest pure American chestnut wood.


The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) maintains a chestnut research project at Lesesne State Forest in Nelson County, VA. American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was once a common deciduous tree in many eastern North American forests and was valued for its nuts, lumber products and firewood. However, the chestnut blight fungus (Endothia parasitica) introduced in the early 20th century spread throughout the natural range of chestnut, killing virtually all chestnut trees by mid-century.

Research conducted at sites like Lesesne State Forest contributes to the development of chestnut tree varieties that are genetically resistant to the blight; these resistant trees are developed through a complex backcrossing program in which American chestnut trees are crossed with Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima) which are resistant to the blight. Through backcrossing, research foresters are collectively developing chestnut trees that are 15/16th American in genetic makeup and also have high blight resistance. (Read more about American chestnut research from the American Chestnut Foundation.) Research shows promise, but success is still years away.

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Pictured: Bill Perry (area forester) and Charlie Becker (utilization and marketing manager)

On a portion of the research plots in the state forest, several small stands of pure American chestnut (Castanea dentata) exist; because of the blight that has impacted chestnut trees in North America, it is incredibly rare to find specimens that are 100% American chestnut and not a hybrid with Chinese chestnut. Other plots within the forest contain hybrid varieties of chestnut trees.

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Charlie Becker saws fallen chestnut logs. 

When several of the American chestnut trees started to die earlier this year, VDOF decided to harvest the lumber so as not to miss this rare opportunity to obtain pure chestnut wood. Charlie Becker (utilization & marketing manager) was motivated to ensure the trees will not go to waste. He said, “While some people may just see great firewood with these logs (which would be a fine use), we know there is a unique opportunity here for more research and special projects. You just don’t get the chance to harvest pure American chestnut now.”

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On October 29, a team of VDOF staff performed a harvest of three American chestnut trees and two different hybrid chestnut specimens and recovered several fallen logs of unknown hybridity. The harvest team consisted of Charlie Becker, Bill Perry (area forester) on the chainsaw and bulldozer, Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist) and Chris Cox (utilization project developer). Together, the team fell the trees, cut them into logs and labeled each specimen according to its plot of origin.

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Bill Perry saws the harvested logs. 

Bill Perry mused on the advancements in technology in the decades since American chestnuts had been regularly harvested. While the harvest crew this October relied on chainsaws and heavy equipment to harvest and sort the timber, harvest technology would likely have been more primitive the last time a substantial pure chestnut stand was harvested.

There are several chestnut restoration projects underway in Virginia; the October harvest contributes to research into viable markets for chestnut wood products, which may, in turn, support restoration efforts.

For one purpose, the harvest will contribute to ongoing, informal research about chestnut wood properties, durability and market viability; for example, it is useful to know if hybrid chestnut wood has similar decay resistance to pure American chestnut, such that it may be used for fence posts – a once important market for American chestnut wood product. The wood harvested may also be used in more formal research to identify and compare the structural and mechanical differences in the wood of pure versus hybrid chestnuts.

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Pictured: (left) Bill Perry, Charlie Becker and Joe Lehnen (utilization and marketing specialist); (right) Joe Lehnen and Chris Cox (utilization project developer)

Additionally, the harvest provided a source of wood for an upcoming workshop about log grading, lumber and wood drying, hosted at VDOF James W. Garner building in Charlottesville on November 7. Pre-registered workshop attendees will have the unique opportunity to participate in the milling of pure chestnut wood. Once the wood is milled into usable planks, Charlie Becker and the marketing and utilization team will identify appropriate uses or projects for the wood (in addition to research initiatives). Such projects may include educational demonstrations, wood type displays at the VDOF Headquarters or possibly even furniture built by local artisans.

Related Media:
NBC29: Virginia Sawyers Cutting American Chestnut Trees for First Time in Decades, November 11, 2019