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!

Native Ecosystem Restoration Expanded in Southeastern Virginia

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Meadowview Biological Research Station (MBRS) recently acquired land that expands an existing conservation easement on the Joseph Pines Preserve in Sussex County.  The 196-acre purchase by MBRS increases the preserve property to nearly 428 acres. The easement, donated to VDOF by MBRS, includes the entire preserve.

“This partnership exemplifies the positive impact of multiple agencies and nonprofit organizations working together with a shared vision,” said Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring. “As a result of this conservation project we are seeing the restoration of a rare forest community with public access.”

The property, which is open to visitors for low-impact use, is managed to restore a native longleaf pine ecosystem. Longleaf pine’s native range once extended from southeast Virginia to east Texas. Although no natural longleaf pine forests remain in Sussex County, historical forest models indicate that longleaf would have likely been present on the Joseph Pines Preserve landscape. A joint research initiative with the USDA Forest Service in 2018 confirmed the assumption – an old log pulled from wetlands on the property was tested and identified as longleaf pine. 

“Five centuries ago, longleaf pine was arguably the most common tree species in upland southeast Virginia,” said Virginia State Forester Rob Farrell. “VDOF and many of our partners have long recognized the importance of longleaf restoration to environmental and economic health, and we are excited to strengthen our efforts through the expansion of this easement.”

VDOF has held an easement on the preserve’s original 232 acres since 2012. The recent purchase of the additional acreage was made possible by grant funding from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund, the Cameron Foundation, a third anonymous foundation, a loan guarantee from Atlantic Union Bank, and a loan from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality Clean Water Revolving Loan Fund. MBRS’ goal is to expand the preserve to 2,000 acres in Sussex County, by adding property and amending the easement over time.

“Our mission is to put back parts of the system that were lost, to preserve the history, and restore this land as best we can to what we think it was,” said Dr. Phil Sheridan, Director of MBRS. 

With its collective land holdings, MBRS has one of the largest sources of native Virginia longleaf pine seed. MBRS has been a pioneer of longleaf conservation and research and plans to support their conservation efforts by working with VDOF to harvest an existing loblolly pine plantation on the property and convert it to native Virginia longleaf pine. MBRS and VDOF determined that the native longleaf pine genotype is superior for in-state planting because of greater survival, growth, water-use efficiency, and fecundity over other southern seed sources.

“Our organization is a part of the VDOF family. We have a long history of working together with the department, especially on activities to restore longleaf pine. Our work together ultimately culminated with acquiring land to meet our research and preservation goals,” said Dr. Sheridan

Longleaf Pine Ecosystems

Longleaf pine woods at Joseph Pines Preserve. Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Longleaf pine forests are fire-dependent, meaning fire is required for regeneration by preparing an open and clean seedbed. Longleaf ecosystems host a number of other rare species in Virginia, including red-cockaded woodpeckers and two species of pitcher plants. Intensive harvesting and a legacy of fire suppression in the Southeast caused significant decline of the longleaf forests and other fire-dependent species. Joseph Pines Preserve, for example, was likely fire-suppressed for over 100 years. Preserve managers have reintroduced fire to the landscape and will continue work to restore the native ecosystem through the reintroduction of at least 18 rare plant species and three rare animal species.

Some species found in the disappearing longleaf forests were not preserved in seedbanks and have been lost forever. Among them are two pitcher plant species, making them a primary focus for the MBRS. Joseph Pine Preserve hosts six rescued native populations of yellow pitcher plants, five of which have gone extinct in  Virginia. “Preserving this habitat means we’re preventing extinction and conserving biodiversity,” said Dr. Sheridan.

Importance for Forest Conservation

Restoring longleaf pine to the landscape is important for many reasons. In addition to supporting critical habitat, longleaf can be a commercially valuable tree. They contribute to Virginia’s overall forest health because they may be more resistant to pests (like southern pine beetle) than other species of pine, due to inherent characteristics of the tree and the use of fire in longleaf forest management. Longleaf pine forests can also be important sources of fresh water.

Frequent prescribed burning means less thickets and dense foliage, making it easier to walk along the trails. Numerous coveys of native bobwhite quail (another diminished species in Virginia) may startle the unsuspecting hiker. Preserve managers have also heard calls from the rare Bachman’s sparrow on the property. The Preserve also hosts the only known publicly accessible yellow pitcher plant site. 

“Identifying forestland with significant conservation value is an essential part of VDOF’s land conservation programs,” said VDOF Forestland Conservation Specialist Amanda Scheps. “The Joseph Pines Preserve is an outstanding example of land that contains important habitat and supports important research to restore a diminished species.”

About MBRS and Joseph Pines Preserve

Meadowview Biological Research Station is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to preserving and restoring rare wetland plants, habitats, and associated ecosystems on the coastal plain of Maryland and Virginia.  Land acquisition and management is made possible through the generous support of donors, state, federal, and private foundations, and volunteers. To learn more about how you can help, visit:

The primary purpose of Joseph Pines Preserve is habitat restoration and conservation. Although the property is open to the public for low-impact permitted activities, visitors must submit an access and use permit prior to entering the property; the preserve is closed during deer hunting season. Examples of permitted activities are hiking and birdwatching, while ATV and horseback riding are prohibited to prevent damage or weed introduction that would negatively impact rare plant species, Plant collection is strictly forbidden.

About the Virginia Department of Forestry

The Virginia Department of Forestry protects and develops healthy, sustainable forest resources for Virginians.  With nearly 16 million acres of forestland and more than 108,000 Virginians employed in forestry, forest products and related industries, Virginia forests provide an overall economic output of more than $21 billion annually.  

Headquartered in Charlottesville, the Agency has forestry staff members assigned to every county to provide citizen service and public safety protection across the Commonwealth, which it’s been doing now for more than 100 years. VDOF is an equal opportunity provider.


Michelle Stoll, Virginia Department of Forestry, (434) 282-4014,
Dr. Phil Sheridan, Meadowview Biological Research Station, (804) 633-4336,

Featured Image: Native yellow pitcher plant at Joseph Pines Preserve, Photo Credit: Meadowview Biological Research Station

Field Notes: Hitchhiking Seeds

By Ellen Powell, VDOF Conservation Education Coordinator

When you think of summer hitchhikers, you probably think of chiggers and ticks. Ick! But did you know that beggar-ticks and harvest lice might also grab a ride on your clothes? Don’t worry, these don’t carry diseases or make you itch. They are the harmless seeds of some of our native plants.

Seeds that cling are adapted to travel to new locations on the fur of animals. When a furry mammal brushes against one of these plants, it dislodges and carries away sticky seeds. Often the seeds ride along until the animal stops to groom itself, at which point it pulls them off and drops them. In this way, the plants are able to spread to new locations.

Plants in the genus Bidens are commonly known as tickseeds, and their seeds are often called beggar-ticks. The slender, two-pronged seeds easily hook onto fur or fabric. Bidens bipinnata, known as Spanish needles, has beautiful fern-like leaves and seeds that may be ¾ inch long.   

Spanish needles, Bidens bipinnata

The genus Desmodium has many species that are hard to tell apart. Known as tick-trefoils or stick-tights, they have three-parted compound leaves and flowers that are often pink or purple. Tick-trefoils are in the legume family, like beans and peas. In fact, their chains of flattened seeds might remind you of peapods. The seeds have a rough texture like Velcro. The slightest brush of a pant leg is enough to stick them fast.

Stick-tights, Desmodium species

Black snakeroot (Sanicula canadensis) has small round seeds that bristle like tiny hedgehogs. The plants are very shade tolerant and can be found in forest understories all over Virginia.

Black snakeroot, Sanicula canadensis

Harvest-lice are the seeds of Agrimonia parviflora, another woodland understory plant. They are shaped like prickly spinning tops.

Harvest-lice, Agrimonia parviflora

As you walk the trails of late summer, you may find your clothing substituting for animal fur, helping to transport seeds to new growing areas. Can you find other seeds that cling? Attach an old sock or piece of felt to a long stick and drag it through the woods or a field edge. You might be surprised at the hitchhikers you pick up!

Field Notes: Fantastic Ferns

By Ellen Powell, Conservation Educator

Woodland walks in May are a study in fresh, vibrant green. Tree canopies have leafed out, shrubs and saplings fill the midstory, and underfoot, ferns and other ground covers sprawl across the leaf litter.

Ellen Powell_lady fern_2020
Lady fern (Athyrium asplenoides).

Ferns are not flowering plants; their reproduction is altogether different. They have a unique two-phase life cycle. The sporophyte form is the plant we recognize as a fern. It releases spores, which grow into tiny plantlets called gametophytes. These contain male and female organs and are capable of being fertilized in the presence of water. From a fertilized gametophyte, a new sporophyte grows, starting the cycle again.

Early last month, ferns were sending up new sporophyte shoots. You can see why they’re called fiddleheads! Now the shoots have unfurled, carpeting the forest floor with delicate fronds.

Some interesting Piedmont ferns include maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), with fronds arranged in a circlet; lacy, dainty lady fern (Athyrium asplenoides), often found on stream banks; rattlesnake fern (Botrychium virginianum), with a stalk of clustered grapelike sporangia; sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), with a simple leaf outline; ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), with erect spikes of tiny leaflets on a black rachis; and the ubiquitous Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), with stocking-shaped leaflets.

Ellen Powell_maidenhair fern_2020
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum).

Featured photo at top of page shows a sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis).


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!


Field Notes: Finding Green in the Winter Woods

By Ellen Powell, Conservation Educator


Central Virginia’s hardwood forests in winter are a study in neutrals; everything is some shade of brown or gray. But look closely at the forest floor, and you’ll see accents of green that hint at spring to come.

Low-sprawling Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) displays its fronds all winter. The plant is so-named not only for its holiday greenery, but for its leaflets, shaped like tiny Christmas stockings.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides).

Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor) has an interesting life cycle. In the fall, each plant grows a single leaf, green on top and purple underneath. The leaf disappears by early summer. A few months later, the flower stalk emerges. The tiny blooms resemble crane-flies, or their familiar cousins – mosquitoes!

Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor).

Running cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) often carpets large areas of the forest floor. It isn’t a cedar at all, but a type of club moss. These primitive plants reproduce by spores instead of seeds.

Running cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum).

Look for all three of these species brightening the leaf litter in a woodland near you!

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.



Field Notes: What’s in the Woods Today? Feb. 5, 2018

Waiting for Spring

by Area Forester Lisa Deaton

This great blue heron, like many of us, seems to be contemplating warmer weather.

big tree heron2

The daffodils in the eastern part of the state are getting ready to bloom.


The squirrels are carrying mouthfuls of leaves from the forest floor and adding them to their nests in the trees.  I tried to catch a photo of that, but squirrels move so fast.

The spring peepers were calling in Mathews County after the 70-degree rainy weather on January 23.   The Virginia Herpetelogical Society provides this Frog Calling Schedule to help identify the frogs you might be hearing.  Be sure to narrow the list down by checking the range maps of each species to see which species live in your area.

I encountered these ripe puffball mushrooms in mid-December.  The only thing I can say about them for certain is that this is a lot of puffballs on one log.  They could be Lycoperdon pyriforme.

puff balls for field notes

The spores inside are released through holes in the top of each ball when raindrops fall on them, when hit by wind gusts, or when something steps on them … like ME!  When I was very young, my friends and I jumped on every puffball we could find.  We called them smoke bombs, and finding them was like finding treasure.  Jumping on puffballs ranked second only to splashing in puddles.

puff ball holes close up

Are you ready for Spring?