Flower Power

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

As a botany enthusiast, I spend a lot of spring hikes looking down, seeking out flashes of white and pops of color from early spring wildflowers. Fortunately, when I get tired of staring at the forest floor, there are blooms to be seen at eye level and above, thanks to our spring-blooming native trees and shrubs.

I should first note that all of our broad-leaved trees and shrubs produce flowers, as any allergy sufferer knows all too well. Many plants’ blooms go unnoticed, being quite small or not very “flowerlike” to the human eye. For example, those crispy caterpillar-like strands you sweep off your deck this time of year are catkins, containing the male flowers of oak trees. Plants with these nondescript, unscented flowers often have wind-blown pollen. In contrast, the flowers that catch our attention are usually insect-pollinated. Spring blossoms provide a critical food source for insects that emerge early, and even for hummingbirds on their spring migration north.

One of our earliest-blooming native shrubs is spicebush (Lindera benzoin). This medium-sized shrub can be abundant in the understory of moist woodlands, often along streams and wetland edges. Appearing before the leaves, the flowers resemble tiny yellow pompoms along bare stems. To me, they stand out like fireflies when the woods are still drab gray and brown.

Spicebush blooms

The serviceberries (Amelanchier species) are among our first-blooming small trees. Their flowers look like dainty white stars caught in the leafless branches. In some areas, this tree is known as shadbush, so-named because it blooms when the shad begin their migration runs up Virginia rivers. 

Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is another small tree that blooms before the leaves appear. If you notice clouds of purple hazing the highway edges in early April, that’s redbud. As a nice bonus, the tiny flowers are edible. Toss them in a salad for pretty color and extra vitamin C; they taste sort of like peas, but with a slight sour tang.

Everyone is familiar with Virginia’s state flower (and tree), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida). But did you know that the four iconic white “petals” are not actually the flowers? Instead they are bracts, petal-like leaves that surround a cluster of small yellow flowers. So our state flower is really more of a state “cluster of tiny flowers surrounded by very showy bracts.” Cheer up, Virginia – North Carolina was fooled too!

About the time dogwood’s display lights up the woods, you may notice another small understory tree (or is it a shrub?) holding big lacy clusters of tiny white flowers above newly unfurled leaves. It’s blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), one of the larger and showier of Virginia’s viburnums.    

The blooms of yellow-poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) are striking, but you may never have seen them. That’s because yellow-poplar grows fast and tall, so the flowers tend to be high in the canopy. I often find fallen ones along trails in early May. They loosely resemble tulips, giving rise to one of the tree’s common names, tuliptree. Those big, showy flowers are also a good clue that this tree is in the magnolia family, not a poplar at all.  

Yellow-poplar flower detail

There are several species of wild azalea in Virginia, but the most common and widespread is pink azalea or pinxterflower (Rhododendron periclymenoides). Unlike the heavy-flowering imported azaleas so popular in the nursery trade, wild azalea is deciduous, with sparser flower clusters that stand out nevertheless. Pink azalea is one of the later shrubs to leaf out, with flowers appearing just before or with the leaves. The very long, curved pistil and stamens (female and male flower parts, respectively) give each flower a delicate, spidery look. If you’re lucky, you might see a hummingbird probing the tubular flowers.

Wild pink azalea

I can’t end this post without highlighting my favorite spring-blooming shrub – mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). Pennsylvania and Connecticut had the right idea – THAT would make a great state flower! Despite having mountain in its name, this evergreen shrub is found all over the state. The masses of flowers vary from white to pink. Each one is a work of art, a case of form following function. The petals are fused into a cuplike structure that make a nice, secure landing place for a bee. The ten arched stamens have their anthers tucked into pockets, marked by dark pink dots inside the flower. When a bee jostles a stamen, the anther pops out of its pocket, spattering the bee with a puff of pollen. Ingenious! Mountain laurel is typically in bloom around Mother’s Day. That’s a great reason to take your mom, yourself, or really anyone you know, out on a hike this month.   


Field Notes: The Early Shrub Gets the Sun

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

With recent warm weather, Virginia’s woods are greening fast. After a dormant winter, plants gear up for photosynthesis again, using carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight to make food. You might be familiar with some early spring wildflowers that emerge on the forest floor, taking full advantage of the leafless canopy to gather some sun of their own before being shaded out by trees. Unfortunately, the shrub layer in many Virginia woodlands is full of some sneaky sun stealers – invasive plants.

Several of our most problematic invasive shrubs are among the first plants to leaf out in spring. What’s more, they often lose their leaves later than our native woody species. One study from Penn State estimated that invasive shrubs may get more than two months of additional growing time, when you add up their extra spring and fall leafiness. This gives the shrubs a competitive edge over native shrubs. Early leaf growth can also shade out understory plants that already have a pretty short window of opportunity to gather sun. 

In March, the most obvious invasive shrub in the Charlottesville area is autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata). The silver-backed leaves give a pale green haze to many an understory, showing us just how prolific this shrub is. Soon after leaf-out, autumn olive’s sickly-sweet fragrance will permeate the woods, followed in summer and fall by silver-dotted red berries.

Except for a few distant pines, everything green in this early-spring photo is autumn olive.

Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) is semi-evergreen in central Virginia, usually retaining a few winter leaves. By March, abundant new leaves are well on their way. Privet is another invasive whose flowers (in June) have a cloying scent and whose berries attract birds. In this case, the berries are dark blue and linger into early winter.

New and old leaves of privet

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is the prickly bane of many trailsides. It often grows in fairly shady areas, but this early leafer has little competition for sunlight in March. This shrub spreads not only from seed, but by spreading from the roots and stem tips that touch the ground. It can form dense thickets that are impossible to walk through without bloodshed.

Young leaves of multiflora rose

Some of the bush honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) bloomed in late winter, well before the leaves appeared, but the shrubs are greening up now. The related Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) vine is mainly evergreen but puts on a flush of new growth in spring. Although evergreens may not actively grow in winter, some continue to put on root growth, and they are definitely ready to go earlier in spring than their deciduous neighbors. Other evergreen invasives include English ivy and wintercreeper euonymus.

Bush honeysuckle flowers and new leaves

You can learn more about invasive shrubs and vines from Blue Ridge PRISM’s fact sheets. PRISM stands for Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management; this very active nonprofit uses education and hands-on efforts to stop the spread of invasives. VDOF’s Common Native Shrubs and Woody Vines also includes a “top ten” section of invasive species. Spring is the perfect time of year for learning to identify these pesky plants. Know them – DON’T grow them!

Field Notes: Wandering the Winter Woods

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

A few weeks ago, on a cold but sunny day, I visited Paul State Forest in Rockingham County for the first time. It was a great place for a winter woods walk.

The Paul became a State Forest in 1962 – a gift to the state from a local judge, John Paul. The forest is included in the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) list of Virginia Birding Trail sites. DWR describes it quite accurately as “an island of forest in a sea of farmland.” The Paul is located on Clover Hill Road near Dayton, just north of Ottobine (map). Look for the old-school wooden sign at the parking area!

The Paul’s 173 acres of mature hardwoods and scattered pines provide winter foraging and roosting habitat for many birds. The day I was there, the woods and edges revealed a typical winter bird crew: red-bellied and downy woodpecker, dark-eyed junco, white-throated sparrow, ruby-crowned kinglet, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, Carolina wren, and northern cardinal. I hope to go back in late April, when the trees should be alive with migrating warblers.

Carolina chickadee

Stumps reveal that trees are sometimes harvested from this forest. Forest management is one key distinction between State Forests and State Parks, with which they are sometimes confused. State Forests are managed for multiple uses, or sometimes quite specific ones, depending on deed restrictions set forth by the donor. Many of our State Forests pay their own way as true “working” forests. In fact, no state general funds are used to maintain State Forests, and 25% of any timber sale revenue is returned to the county where the forest is located.  

Winter is the perfect time to study and appreciate tree bark in a hardwood forest like the Paul: the pale shagginess of white oak, diamond-patterned furrows of mockernut hickory, the “burnt cornflake” look of black cherry, and lots of other interesting textures. I found an unexpected species during my walk at the Paul: bigtooth aspen. I recognized its smooth, olive-tinged bark, then confirmed my identification with some nearby fallen leaves.

In winter, the understory of the Paul is quite open, in part because goats were posted there to eat invasive plants last summer. Thankfully, they didn’t do much damage to the native spicebush – perhaps because it tastes like lemon furniture polish? The spicebush flower buds were already showing yellow when I visited; if you visit now (mid-March), they should be in full bloom.

Like many of our State Forests, the Paul is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. It has a small parking area on a country road, and no facilities other than a few picnic tables. But the views from the parking lot and forest edges are lovely, and the forest roads are easy to hike, making it a perfect place for families with young children. Kids outdoors tend to find their own entertainment, and everybody can learn unexpected things from a walk in the woods. (For example, after pulling a large pine branch off the path during my walk, I discovered that hand sanitizer is great for removing pine sap from hands.)

Farm view from the edge of Paul State Forest

In these days of virtual instruction, why not create your own field trip with a visit to a State Forest? You can take along some of Virginia Department of Forestry’s activity ideas for kids to try outdoors. Bonus: They’re fun for adults too!

Field Notes: Sounds of Spring

by Ellen Powell, conservation educator

The flush of green suffusing our woodlands isn’t the only signal that spring is here.

If a daily dawn chorus wakes you this month, it likely includes our state bird, the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). This species is a bit unusual, in that both males and females sing, providing a familiar soundtrack in woodland edges and thickets statewide.

Learn more about cardinals and listen to their songs.

Ivy Creek view 1
Ivy Creek.

One of the first warblers to return to central Virginia woodlands is the Louisiana waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla). Listen for it’s clear-noted song and watch for it foraging along the edges of woodland streams like the one pictured on the right.

See and learn more about the Louisiana waterthrush here.

Birds aren’t the only singers in the spring woods. Frogs and toads gather in shallow wetlands and ponds to mate. The more males in a breeding chorus, the more likely they are to be heard by potential mates. Late March is an excellent time to hear a chorus of American toads (Anaxyrus americanus), especially on cloudy days.

Listen to ethereal trills of the American toad.



Credit, Photo of Northern Cardinal: Jessica Bolser/USFWS

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods? Daffodils!

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Daffodils, Narcissus spp., are always a welcome sight — they are nature’s colorful announcement that spring is near!

first daffodils

When we encounter daffodils in the middle of the woods, they are often a sign of an abandoned homestead. In the photos below, the flowers appear to surround an old shed or well (left), and these blooms near an old brick foundation (right) have thrived under 70 years of forest canopy cover.

While daffodil sightings like these are common throughout Virginia, in Gloucester and Mathews Counties we find entire fields, patches of forest and roadsides carpeted in daffodils. And for a period of several weeks, numerous varieties bloom throughout the area.

What began in the 1600s as an import by English settlers creating new homes and gardens, bloomed into an agricultural crop for the Middle Peninsula of Virginia by the early 1900s.  Gloucester and Mathews Counties soon became known as the “Daffodil Capital of America.” At that time, more than 150 families were producing daffodils on 1,000 acres.

This heritage of daffodil farming has been celebrated by a Daffodil Show since 1938, and also with an annual Daffodil Festival since 1987. The industry began to decline when air freight transformed the cut flower market, but daffodils still abound throughout the Middle Peninsula. Many local residents remember time spent in the fields harvesting flowers and bulbs, and some owners of daffodil fields still set up roadside stands to sell cut blooms.

Read more about the history of growing daffodils in Virginia.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? April 22, 2019

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Two Snake Day!


Last week the sun was shining, and the fresh spring foliage and flowers were lovely.  The road in the photo above was a Gloucester County state road until Beaverdam Reservoir was built in 1989,  submerging a section of this road.


Pawpaw blooms (Asimina triloba)


Eastern redbud blooms can resemble tiny hummingbirds. (Cercis canadensis)

Then I almost stepped on a copperhead snake heading in my direction.  We both jumped backwards.  This is the first copperhead I have seen on the Middle Peninsula after four years of working here.   They are one of Virginia’s few species of venomous snakes.


As you can imagine, I was more alert after this snake encounter.  Yet, I was still surprised to come across one more snake as I was leaving the woods (below and cover photo).  I believe this one was a northern black racer, judging by the descriptions at the Virginia Herpetological Society website.  The snake retreated to this tree hollow and tapped its tail back and forth rapidly under some leaves to create a rattling sound.

It is not super common to see snakes while walking in the woods, but they seem to be less cautious and easier to find during the first few weeks of warm, 80-degree weather.


Field Notes: The Beauty of March

by VDOF Area Forester Richard Reuse

March and April are the most beautiful months in Virginia. Relative humidity is low, the spring ephemeral wildflowers are blooming and the bugs aren’t out yet….except for the ticks. Here are some of the things I’ve seen this month.

These are trout lilies. It’s very unusual to find them in eastern Virginia.


Oh deer…there’s a fungus among us.

A nice loblolly pine stand that was thinned a few years ago.


Running Cedar


Running Cedar and Christmas Fern


Cedar bark stripped by a squirrel for its nest in a neighboring tree.