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: Milkweed Magic

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

For a plant with ‘weed’ in its title, milkweed is a pretty awesome plant. It contains toxins called cardiac glyphosides, which deter feeding by most insects and mammals. Despite this trait, a milkweed plant is a little universe unto itself. In fact, one study documented more than 450 species of insects visiting milkweed in a single midwestern field.

You probably already know about the association between milkweeds and monarchs (Danaus plexippus). The caterpillars of these iconic butterflies feed only on plants in the milkweed genus, Asclepius. As a reward for this boring diet, their bodies retain the toxins produced by the plant. These persist into adulthood, making adult monarchs distasteful to most predators. The butterfly’s black and orange coloring and the caterpillar’s contrasting stripes are nature’s warning to stay away.  

Monarch cats!

But monarchs aren’t the only milkweed lovers in the insect world. Currently, the only milkweed in my garden is a single large specimen of swamp milkweed, Asclepius incarnata. In June, its pink blooms were abuzz and aflutter with many different insects. (The nectar isn’t toxic and attracts all sorts of nectar feeders.) After the blooms faded, I ignored my plant for a month or two. When I examined it in September, I found, in addition to seven hungry monarch caterpillars, a few other interesting insects that feed on milkweed.

Bumblebee on milkweed

Large milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) are “true bugs” of the order Hemiptera. They feed mainly on milkweed seeds, probing through the pods with their long piercing mouthparts to suck juices from the seeds within. Like monarchs, milkweed bugs accumulate toxins in their bodies, and like them, they sport a bold color pattern. This is an example of Müllerian mimicry, in which two or more species look alike and are both noxious to predators.

Large milkweed bug

Milkweed leaf beetles (Labidomera clivicollis) look a bit like very large, chunky ladybugs. Both their larvae and adults feed on milkweed leaves. Unlike monarchs and milkweed bugs, these beetles do not build up toxins from the plants, but they do share the same contrasting colors. This is an example of Batesian mimicry, in which a tasty species mimics one that tastes bad.

Milkweed leaf beetle and aphids

My milkweed also attracted yellow aphids this year, seen in the background of the beetle photo. These are most likely oleander aphids (Aphis nerii), an introduced pest that feeds on (you guessed it) oleander in its native Mediterranean habitat.

Fourteen species of milkweed are native to Virginia. Clusters of white, pink, purple, or orange flowers bloom from late spring through late summer, depending on species. In late summer to fall, the seed pods will split to release fluffy seeds that drift away in the wind.

Many Virginia gardeners cultivate milkweeds for their flowers and for their benefit to monarchs. The summer generations of monarchs live only a few weeks, but September’s caterpillars are different. They will transform into the tough, yet lovely, butterflies that will make a 3,000-mile journey to central Mexico, hang out for the winter, and return to the U.S. in spring.

My monarch caterpillars all left the plant to pupate when I was away for a few days. I looked everywhere for their chrysalises, but in my jungle of a garden, I couldn’t find any. Hopefully they’ll all produce strong, healthy monarchs capable of making that long flight.

Monarchs are a species in trouble. Contributing factors include habitat loss on both breeding and overwintering grounds, climate change, and pesticide use. You can help by growing milkweed in your own yard. (Buying plants from a nursery is usually the best option, because milkweed seeds don’t germinate reliably.) When friends ask what that interesting plant is, don’t be afraid to tell them it’s a weed – and a very cool one!

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?


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? Best of Summer 2019

By Area Forester Lisa Deaton

A Round-up of Interesting Moments & Encounters in the Woods from Summer 2019

When a local deadline for forest land use reports passed in late fall, I had time to share photos from the past few months. Note:  Land Use Assessment is available in many Virginia counties (but not all) for property owners with 20 or more acres of woods.  You can check with your local Commissioner of the Revenue to see if it is an option for your property.



lichenhopper 1

While walking with a landowner through a 23-year old loblolly pine stand to see if the stand could be commercially thinned, we encountered this grasshopper “shell” which appeared to be growing lichens.  Our forest health staff explained that this grasshopper died from an entomopathogenic fungus, sometimes referred to as zombie fungi.  A fungal spore infected this grasshopper, then consumed its body to grow a new fruiting body to release more spores.  So, what appeared to be lichen is actually the “mushroom” formed by the fungus.  The many species of “zombie” fungi are host specific, and serve as a natural control for many insect populations, such as our invasive gypsy moth.


IMG_3791 histerid ZOOMWhen we experience hot, drought-y periods, pine bark beetles can kill their host pine trees by girdling the trees with their tunnels.  The lack of soil moisture prevents the pines from being able to drown out the invading insects with tree sap.  While trying to identify which type of beetle had killed a yard tree in Middlesex County, we found a histeridae beetle (genus Platysoma) that was infested with mites.  Keep in mind that the total length of the host beetle in the microscope photograph above is 2 mm.  Platysoma beetles are predators that eat ips beetles, so while we did not find an ips beetle, it is a sign that an ips species helped kill this particular loblolly pine tree.


It is common in July and August for foresters to leave the woods covered with “seed” ticks, or clusters of the larval stage of various tick species that are as small as seeds. Each of the tiny dots on the pant leg in this photois a tick larva.

seed ticks

I am always glad to say “¡Hasta la vista!” to them at the end of the summer.  There is much more to the tick story but I will save it for next summer.





While the ticks are no fun, seeing wildflowers and shrubs in their natural setting is one of the joys of working in the woods.  This shrub is Viburnum nudum, also called possumhaw.  The berries start out pink and turn deep blue, and are eaten by songbirds, wild turkey, and squirrels.





flying saucer in woods


Summertime in Virginia provides the heat and moisture needed by all sorts of fungi in order to flourish. This appears to be a type of shelf fungi, possibly Oxyporus populinus. The mushrooms in the photo below had a fairy tale look on a particularly sweaty day.  A local expert identifies them as silky rosegill.

hollow tree mushrooms ZOOM


While many mushrooms thrive in the heat, these black vultures gathered around a sunken bathtub on an 80-degree morning.  After weeks of 90-degree temperatures, they were not bashful about seeking relief from the heat near a house.


While preparing for a talk on Forests and Climate Change, I ventured out to photograph a clearcut (below) on the water’s edge that has grown back in an invasive species, phragmites, or common reed.


I was surprised to encounter a covey of bobwhite quail in such dense vegetation.  According to the landowner, quail have inhabited this tidal area for several years.  I heard the young quail peeping in the reeds, then two adult quail leapt into the road — one acted like it had a broken wing for several seconds (a defensive mechanism meant to distract predators away from their more vulnerable young), then both adults charged towards me.

Field Notes: What’s In The Woods Today? September 2, 2019

By Project Learning Tree Coordinator Page Hutchinson

Look A Little Closer…

Although I work for the Virginia Department of Forestry, my job doesn’t actually allow me much time in the forest. Being a tree hugger from way back, I take as many opportunities as I can to get in the forest. On the recent Labor Day holiday, my friend Karen and I went for a hike on the Graves Mill Trail in Madison County. This easy trail follows along the Rapidan River and allows you to enjoy both the water and the forest. I use the term “hike” loosely. Karen and I call these our pokes as in we poke along examining this and that and enjoying all that we see. Very rarely is there an actual destination. Our day is driven by when we need to turn around and get back before dark. I don’t know that we’ve ever even tracked actual distance.

On this particular poke, we arrived both of us feeling stressed and somewhat harried from life and work events over the past few weeks. We quickly found a boulder on the water’s edge just to soak in the soothing sound of the moving water. Once restored, we headed on down the trail to see what we could see. Most noticeable were the splash of wildflowers, the profusion of ferns and the dance of many butterflies. Butterflies are hard to identify unless you can get a really good picture of them. That’s certainly easier said than done!

Beyond the most noticeable, we like to focus on the lesser-noticed beauty the forest has to offer: small fungi poking through the leaf litter, lacy patterns on leaves created by insects, unique shapes of tree trunks, designs and colors on rocks, and even the fabulous design of decomposing bark. Our most amazing discovery that day was some sort of insect case made out of folded fern leaflets. We found several and dissected one, but didn’t find anyone home.

We even enjoyed a refreshing dip in the river. A great poke, and a great day all the way around.

Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? May 9, 2018

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

Flowers, Birds and Bugs

When the songbirds and wildflowers reappear each spring, it feels a bit like a reunion with long lost friends.  The migratory songbirds fill the air with familiar songs.  The month of May brings many beautiful wildflowers, including its namesake, the Mayapple (below).


Golden ragwort (top photo) is a common wildflower in cutovers, and this large patch of ragwort (below) provides some natural landscaping for an old house no longer surrounded by forest.

Dame house w flowers

As it turns out, the songbirds are not here just to greet us; they have arrived in time to eat the emerging insects and to drink nectar from the blooming flowers.

Zebra swallowtail butterflies have hatched on the Middle Peninsula.  This one (below) is feeding on the nectar of two species of purple flowers growing near the zebra swallowtail’s host plant, pawpaw.

Z Swallowtail original

If spring has a dark side, it is the arrival of some very annoying insects: deer flies, ticks, and mosquitoes.   These “biters” are present throughout the summer; but insects can have their magical moments, such as these baby spiders taking a leap towards their first adventures (below).

spider hatch

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.