Tree of the Month – Sweetgum

If you are fortunate enough to escape the winter cold and travel to warmer destinations in Central America, keep an eye out for one of our eastern native trees: the sweetgum has an extensive range, growing in the mid-elevations of cloud forests in Mexico, down into Nicaragua.

With five (occasionally seven) lobes, they resemble maple leaves but are less palmate and more deeply defined. In comparison to maples which grow in pairs, the sweetgum leaves are alternate.

In Virginia, they live more commonly in the piedmont and coastal plain but occasionally, they can be found growing naturally in the Shenandoah Valley. They make spectacular specimen trees as they have numerous interesting aspects – from bark to autumn color to charming star-shaped leaves.

In summer, sweetgum provide wonderful shade with heights up to 150 feet and maximum crown spread of 100  feet. When mature, they have a pleasing, balanced, rounded form.

The young twigs and limbs have distinctive flanges and wing-like growths. Due to this “extra” wood on the branches, they are prone to ice damage as snow and ice can build up in the crevices, weighing down the twigs and limbs. This growth has earned the sweetgum the nickname of “alligator tree” as the young branches have a scaly, vaguely prehistoric appearance.

Sweetgums prefer full sun and rich, well-drained soil. It requires planning when used as a landscape tree due to its mature size and this tendency for ice damage, particularly when young. It develops a significant root system, necessary for anchoring such a tall tree, making it best suited far away from sidewalks and buildings.

The woody, spiky seed balls also make the tree best suited to areas where they can grow unimpeded and where they can drop their seeds where vehicles and bare feet will not mind them.

It is always informative to delve into the Latin names of plants: Liquidambar styraciflua comes from liquidus meaning “fluid” and Arabic “amber”; styrax is Greek for the storax tree. So this tree is named for the resin which flows when the bark is wounded.  It also gives the twigs a pleasant taste when chewed and emits an aromatic odor.

In his wonderful compendium of stories collected from old-timers, mountain folk and Cherokee elders in the Appalachians, John Parris interviewed his grandfather who spoke of “gummin’ time” in the spring when sap was flowing.  “When I was a boy…there wasn’t no store-bought chewin’ gum to be had. We got our chewin’ gum out of the woods’. He reported that they most often got their gum from pine resin but that spruce and birch were also prized. ‘Sweet gum made another mighty fine chewin’ gum. But it was somewhat bitter tasting.’ He notes that it is also ‘mighty good for treatin’ sores and skin troubles’[1].

‘When sweet gum bark is wounded, it exudes a vanilla-scented resin known as storax or styrax, which is used in perfumery and also as a medicine (as an expectorant and inhalant and to treat skin diseases’[2]

Southampton, Virginia claims the Commonwealth’s award for the  largest known specimen with a height of 145 feet, circumference of 236 and a crown spread of 92 feet. The national champion grows in Burlington, NJ and tops out at 115 feet, has a circumference of 230 feet and a crown spread of 109 feet.

In addition to these champions, Virginia has a record of remarkable trees, chosen for their large size, age, significant history, beauty or beloved community status.  In 2008, Remarkable Trees of Virginia was published, filled with beautiful photographs highlighting these honored trees. A significant sweetgum flourishes in Johnson Park, South Norfolk. Estimated at about 200 years old, this tree is protected by residents who realize its significance in their community, an appreciative city arborist and an engaged Parks and Recreation Department[3].

As if the sweetgum tree needed any other reasons to recommend it as a wonderful addition to the landscape, it is the host of one of the most intriguing and exotic of the night-flying moths: the luna moth. It also provides food for baby Promethea moth, another spectacular Virginia native caterpillar.

Finally, the virtues of sweetgum continue into the commercial realm; its timber is only second to oaks among hardwood production and its wood, which can take a high polish, is used for ornamental woodworking in cabinetry, veneer, baskets, boxes, etc.

Chris Anderson
Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation

[1] Parris, John, 1957, My Mountains, My People, Citizen Times Publishing Company, Asheville, NC., p.219.
[2] Tudge, Colin, 2005, The Tree – A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter, Crown Publishers, New York, p. 168.
[3] Hugo-Ross, N & J. Kirwan, 2008, Remarkable Trees of Virginia, Albemarle Books, University of Virginia Press, p.77

Tree of the Month – Sassafras albidum

As autumn descends on the Shenandoah Valley and trees don their bright attire before resting for winter, one understory tree can’t decide on what shade it wants to wear so displays them all – from lemon yellow and peach to russet and bright red: the diminutive sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is a delight with its interesting leaves, graceful branch structure and small stature.

They tend to form thickets with multiple trunks but rarely reach heights of more than about 40 feet, however, the largest known specimen in Virginia grows in Lee County with a height of 65 feet and a circumference of over 18 feet and is featured in the book Remarkable Trees of Virginia.[1] The national champion resides in Davies, Kentucky and was nominated in 1954.

Sassafras prefer dappled sun to shade and are tolerant of most well-drained soil types, however,  care should be taken to avoid heavy or clay soils as root rot can occur in such conditions. They tend to be fairly care-free once established and are moderate to fast growers.

Every part of the tree is fragrant and produces blue-black berries favored by birds. They are dioecious, so, if providing berries is a goal for wildlife, both a male and a female tree are needed.

Belonging to the family Lauraceae, they are unusual in that each tree can have three leaf shapes – oblong, mitten-shaped and three-pronged.

Sassafras leaf-shapes‘Almost every part of the plant is useful in one way or another,’ writes Nelson Coon in his book Using Wild and Wayside Plants’[2] He notes that the dried leaves are commercially produced as one of the signature ingredients in New Orlean’s gumbo and known as filé.

Sassfrass is a flavoring in rootbeer and gumdrops and used to fragrance soap. As reported by early European colonists, the tree was called winauk by Native Americans in Virginia and Delaware.

Native tribes shared their knowledge of the usefulness of the roots, bark and leaves with Europeans who then recognized its economic value.  The search for stands encouraged Europeans to encroach on Native lands and to begin exporting the parts of the tree since the essential oils ‘were believed to cure everything from lameness to liver aches’[3]sasafrass-3in-rs

For a splash of color in the landscape, planting sassafras under several red maples or hickories combined with sumac would create a vibrant focal point. A backdrop of dark green evergreens like cedar or pine would highlight the brightly colored autumn foliage.

Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
Luray, VA 22835

[1] Hugo-Ross, N & J. Kirwan, 2008. Remarkable Trees of Virginia, Albemarle Books, Virginia, p. 64-65.
[2] Coon, N., 1957,  Using Wild and Wayside Plants, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, p.130
[3] Hugo-Ross, N & J. Kirwan, 2008. Remarkable Trees of Virginia, Albemarle Books, Virginia, p. 64-65.


Tree of the Month – Elderberry [Sambucus nigra subsp. canadensis]

The famous forager and naturalist Euell Gibbons says ‘the common Elderberry, known to botanists as Sambucus canadensis (sic), is one of the most abundant, most useful, most healthful, yet most neglected of our native wild fruits.’[1]

He urges everyone to utilize the dark blue-black berries as, when you harvest them, you are ‘dropping health into that pail’.  Indeed, the benefits of elderberry seem endless, from treating colds and hay fever, to helping with diabetes and weight loss and generally fighting infection and inflammation. The berries are packed with vitamin C and flavonoids, those compounds which support our overall immune system. Science is finally catching up to the ancient wisdom of indigenous people who have used native plants for medicine for centuries.

This may be a good winter to stock up on natural tonics as the Old Farmer’s Almanac is calling for cold and above average snowfall for the Appalachians. The alcoholic drink sambuca is made by infusing anise and elderberries into alcohol.

However, clear warning: the raw berries are completely unpalatable/mildly toxic to humans so must be cooked or processed (made into wine, jams/jellies, pies, tea, etc.) in order to be ingested.

Too, another highly toxic dark berry also ripens the same time of year as the elderberry – those of poke salet or pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) so take care to obtain a positive identification for any wild edible before eating it.

Elderberry flowers rs

The showy white flowers provide nectar to eager pollinators in the spring

Even elderberry flowers can be made into a pale yellow wine – called “elder blow wine”[2]

It is good to scout out the location of elderberry before they get completely ripe as birds also  relish the berries straight off the bush. The large shrub (or small tree) tends to grow abundantly once established so, given plenty of room to spread, there will likely be enough berries to both harvest and share with wildlife.

The shrubs grow about three to ten feet tall (but can reach 20 feet), and are most happy in moist, open areas where they can get plenty of sunlight. Not overly particular in their location, they can adapt fine to disturbed areas, streamsides, woodlands and fields.

Elderberry provides a great backdrop to native plantings and grows well with taller wildflowers like ironweed, Joe Pye Weed and New England Asters.

Shorter native wildflowers such as false blue indigo (pictured below in bloom) Echinacea, Rudbeckia, cardinal flower and bee balm provide a splash of color for the front of a native border which utilizes elderberry in the background.

Native Planting-elderberry and indigo

Native landscape planting with elderberry in the background

In more formal landscapes, they can be trained into a hedge but this limits their berry production

Chris Anderson, Executive Director

White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Rd.
Luray, VA 22835



[1] Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Field Guide Edition, Euell Gibbons, David McKay Company, inc., New York, 1962,p.87
[2] Using Wayside Plants, Nelson Coon, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1957, p. 158.

Tree of the Month – Magnolia virginiana

Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay)

Life can be stressful sometimes – thank goodness for magnolias! When things get overwhelming, get yourself to your closest blooming magnolia and deeply inhale the soothing, rich deep, exotic fragrance. For extreme cases, bring along a chair and plan to stay next to your tree and your blossom for as long as it takes for your blood pressure to lower, your body to relax and your thoughts to clear – the fragrance of the magnolia flower is the best therapy ever and smells a little like honeysuckle and vanilla with a swirl of wisteria, gardenia and the sweetest rose.

The flowers are wonderfully large, typically four to six inches across and each smooth velvet petal measures two to three inches wide. The flowers are nyctinastic as they close at night and open wide again in the morning with each flower lasting two or three days.

Magnolia BlossomIn Virginia and the mid-Atlantic, we have a lovely native magnolia called the Sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) which has enchanting small blossoms which pack as much flower-power perfume as the larger umbrella leaf magnolia (Magnolia tripetela) or cucumber-tree magnolia (Magnolia acuminata). It grows naturally along the coastal plain but can also thrive in the Piedmont and Blue Ridge provinces.

The ornamental sweetbay highlights its long-blooming flowers (typically May-July) with attractive dark green foliage surrounding the creamy white blossoms which are borne on top of the leaf structure. The leaves are alternate and untoothed with horizontal branches creating a generally balanced appearance. In the south, they are generally deciduous but can be evergreen in the most southern climates or in protected areas.

The current Virginia champion lives in the City of Chesapeake and is 58’ tall with a crown of 55’. The national champion is thriving in Hillsboro, Florida at 61’ tall with a crown spread of 60’.

They are a great choice for wetter areas as they have high moisture needs and can grow in part shade or full sun. They work well in the landscape in locations where size is a factor as they typically reach a maximum height of 20 feet  and can also be grown as a large shrub, though in ideal situations, they can grow up to 50 feet. Thriving in the south, Magnolia virginiana is hardy to zones 6-9.

After flowering, the magnolia forms a very interesting seed pod, a favorite for Christmas decorations and winter arrangements.

The magnolia is a host to the gorgeous eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly and the sweetbay silk moth (Callosamia securifera). It has many known medicinal properties, particularly the bark, and is an ancient Chinese and Native American curative.

E Tiger Swallowtail rswkStressed out Asians in need of some natural aromatherapy are fortunate to have the majority of magnolias growing from the Himalayas through Japan and China. The Magnoliaceae family contains 12 genera and about 200 species including another of our favorite southern trees, the tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipfera).

So for an inexpensive way to chill out and get everything in perspective, plant a magnolia and get your chair or blanket or hammock ready to breathe in its sweet fragrance.




Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Road
Luray, VA 22835


Tree of the Month – Viburnums

In the beauty contest of native plants, viburnums are the quiet, come-from-behind winners. It is true that their common names might cause side glances and a few snickers between the judges and audience (“…and here comes Miss Possum Haw, followed by Miss Black Haw…”) but their humble names hide their sophistication, particularly when in bloom. Their common name refers to their resemblance to hawthorne trees (to which they are not related).

Occasionally landscapers will extol their virtues with enthusiasm, ranking them at the top of their go-to list for utility and appearance, but more often, they are relegated to the why-not category. At White House Natives, we would like to shine a spotlight on both Viburnum nudum and Viburnum prunifolium.

The beauty of the native species’ flowers rivals that of the non-native snowball bush or the non-native hydrangeas. These are also in the genus Viburnum (of which there are over 150 species) but these two ornamentals are both from Asia. These imports don’t serve as larval hosts to many (if any) native caterpillars or insects.

As with all the native trees and shrubs grown in the Nursery, the Black Haw and Possum Haw are meant to grow in Virginia and across their native range throughout the mid-Atlantic states– they are supposed to be here and, as such, they are integrated into the natural order of faunal associations. Birds feast on the dark blue to black berries (that start out pink) in the fall which fuels their migrations south or helps our avian friends make it through a winter if they are year-round residents.

The branching structure provides valuable habitat for birds, allowing them to build their nests in the protection of the many smaller twigs and helping disguise the location of the babies from predators.

The native viburnums grow about 12-20’ in height and 6-12’ in width. They are versatile in their location, able to handle drier sites and withstand drought plus they thrive in full sun or part shade.  They can be grown as multi-stemmed bushes or as interesting single stem trees, in which case, they can reach heights of 25-30’.

One final reason the native viburnums should take a more prominent position in the landscape is their fall foliage, which provides a splash of dark burgundy that is particularly stunning when planted en masse. Viburnums lend themselves well to establishing a very attractive hedge and serve as a native replacement to privet which tends to become invasive.

Chris Anderson
Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation

Tree of the Month – Dogwood Shrubs

CREP Tree Planting with Shelter and Weed-Barrier Mat

CREP Tree Planting with Shelter and Weed-Barrier Mat

One of the least expensive and most effective ways to improve water quality also happens to be the simplest – plant trees and shrubs on stream banks and in flood plains. The land adjacent to a waterway is termed a riparian area and the trees and shrubs which grow on that area are called a riparian buffer. This vegetation serves the important function of acting like a sponge, literally buffering the water by filtering out harmful pollutants.

Thousands of farmers in Virginia (and nationwide) have participated in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), a federal program which provides cost-share funding to fence cattle out of streams, install native hardwood trees and shrubs and provide alternative watering systems, hard crossings across streams and other practices aimed at improving water quality.

Based on landowners desires for their land, a key component of the CREP program is re-establishing a riparian buffer by installing native species. Farmers and landowners work with their local Department of Forestry to determine what species will grow best on their property. Typical species planted immediately adjacent to waterways include river birch, sycamore, cottonwood, swamp white oak, pin oak, bald cypress and other hydrophilic species. Green and white ash were previously utilized, however, with the advent of the emerald ash borer, these species are not often prescribed.

The voluntary CREP program assists landowners in re-establishing natural forested buffers, grass/shrub areas and wetlands with a goal of not only improving water quality but also providing wildlife food and habitat.

Trees and shrubs next to water ways help hold soil in place, decreasing erosion. The vegetation that falls into the stream or rivers provide food and habitat to aquatic life – part of a healthy ecosystem.

Fast-growing shrubs help jumpstart a restoration project and some of the super-stars in the mid-Atlantic region are the dogwoods – not the flowering tree (Cornus florida) which beautifies mountainsides in the spring – but the related silky dogwood (Cornus amomum), gray stem (Cornus racemosa) and red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) shrubs.*

These dogwood shrubs root easily and grow to a height of 10-15 feet. Many songbirds relish the seeds and the thickets that form in areas where the shrubs  are allowed to spread provide shelter to many small mammals.

One of the most important functions of this suite of desirable shrubs is their ability to bend during times of flooding; their flexible stems lean with the flow of water instead of breaking, while their extensive spider web-like roots hold soil in place.

CornusFor natural stream or habitat restoration projects or for general landscaping, the dogwoods provide many benefits including beauty, hardiness, berries for songbirds and root very quickly (often within a matter of weeks), providing almost instant benefits.




Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Rd.
Luray, VA 22835

*These three species of dogwood are currently being grown by White House Natives. Also native to Virginia are Cornus alternifolia (alternate-leaf dogwood), Cornus stricta (swamp dogwood) which grows in the coastal plain, Cornus rugosa (roundleaf dogwood) and Cornus drummondi (roughleaf dogwood).

For more information on the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District or Natural Resources Conservation Service office

Tree of the Month – Spicebush

As a heavy blanket of snow recently fell over the Shenandoah Valley, the avian community was busy searching for seeds or dried berries still visible and accessible above the record-breaking storm depths. With their usual landscapes transformed and the ground hidden, their food sources become more scarce. The redbirds and wrens, grosbeaks and waxwings are trying to find tiny morsels by flitting through gardens and re-visiting landscapes.
They would be fortunate to come across a spicebush (Lindera benzoin) with a few dried berries persisting this late in the winter, as the drupes are considered a high quality bird food. They are high in fat (lipid) content, providing valuable energy. Because of their favored status with migratory bird species who need the extra fuel to continue on their long flights, the spicebush tends to get picked over quickly.
The spicebush is an understory species and grows 10-16 feet at maturity. Along the river trail at the White House Farm, numerous spicebush flourish under the cottonwood and sycamore trees, growing well with the Osage orange and occasional oak.
In addition to providing valuable nutrition to birds, the spicebush is also the host to an extremely beautiful butterfly – the spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus). The caterpillars feed primarily on spicebush, though they will also eat sassafras and other laurels.1

Mammals do eat the berries – raccoons, oppossums and skunk – but the pungent, strong-tasting berries are not as palatable to them as the sweeter berries.
The spicebush is one of the earliest shrubs to bloom in the spring, flowering before the leaves emerge, and so is a valuable nectar source for bees.
The assets that the spicebush brings to the landscape continue with humans – the shrub is aptly named for its pleasant, fruity-earthy-fresh fragrance and all parts of the shrub – bark, twigs, fruit and leaves – smell sweet.
Reportedly, ladies in older times, attending country dances, would tuck the crushed leaves of spicebush into the top parts of their dresses or undergarments, in order that the fragrance might attract a particularly fetching partner.

Euell Gibbons, in his classic book, Eating the Wild Asparagus, writes:

‘When maple sap has been reduced about 4 to 1 by boiling, it has about the right sweetness for making some interesting woodland teas. A cupful of chopped-up bark of the fragrant spicebush boiled for 20 minutes in 1 quart of this sweet sap will give a palatable tea that formerly had a reputation as a restorative and reliever of fatigue. Whether the tiredness of the early settlers was relieved by the sugar, warmth and rest they acquired while making and drinking this tea, or whether the spicebush actually contains some stimulant is for a more scientific researcher than I am to decide. Its pleasant flavor and invigorating effect are all the excuse I need to drink Spicebush Tea made with maple sap.’2

The finely chopped berries can be a seasoning in culinary pursuits – with uses similar to allspice.

For the landscaper, spicebush can be a great understory selection. It prefers dappled shade and rich, moist soil, growing equally well on level or sloped ground. It is dioecious – a male and female plant is needed in order to cross-pollinate and produce viable berries. The bright yellow leaves in the fall are pleasing for a splash of understory color, particularly paired with canopies of yellows and browns produced by autumn sycamores and yellow birch.

Lindera Benzoin RS
The bright yellow leaves serve as a ‘foliar leaf flag’, signaling the location to birds and alerting them that tasty and nutritious berries may be available.
For landscapes designed to attract birds, below is a list of other high quality fruit species which have red or violet berries:

Flowering and gray stemmed dogwoods (Cornus altnernifolia, Cornus amomum, Cornus racemosa, Cornus sericea)
Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala)
Southern Arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum)
Sassafrass (Sassafras albidum)
Virgnia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Wnter Holly (Ilex verticullata)
Red Chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia)
Cedar (Juniper virginiana)

(Please note, most of the above species are grown by White House Natives but check availability on our inventory page)

–Chris Anderson
White House Farm Foundation


[1] Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America, Jim P. Brock & Kenn Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, 2003, p.26,

[2] Stalking the Wild Asparagus-Field Guide Edition, Euell Gibbons, David McKay Company, Inc., New York, 1962, p. 124.

Tree Feature – Black Walnut

                         These butternut wooly worm larvae were seen along the Town of Washington, VA nature path in July 2015

Ranking near the top of the naturalist’s what-the-heck-is-that list is a very strange creature called a butternut wooly worm. A more applicable name would be the coconut flake worm as it looks like a strange type of sugary confection with delicate, snow-white tendrils that move in the lightest breeze. This little oddity feeds on walnut, hickory and butternut leaves and is the larvae of a sawfly (Eriocampa juglandis). Sawflies are related to bees and wasps but don’t sting. They have outbreak years when more defoliation occurs but they do not tend to pose a significant health risk to their host species.

Walnut trees could be planted in a highly visible area solely for the opportunity to spot these delightfully peculiar grubs. However, walnut tree placement takes a bit of planning in the landscape as the nuts with their husks can reach 4” in diameter. For this reason, they are probably not the best choice around parking areas as a vehicle could sustain a substantial dent should the nuts hit with sufficient force. Too,  the walnut husk contains a dye that stains almost anything it comes into contact with – like cement sidewalks and asphalt.

Walnuts have not typically been a first choice in landscape design but they have an interesting strength of form, particularly in the winter months.

Given sufficient room to grow, they are very beautiful trees in each season. In the fall, the foliage turns a bright yellow, creating a pleasant splash of color, particularly when growing en masse.

Ecologically, in addition to the butternut woolly worm, they support more than 100 species of Lepidoptera[1].

The walnut is known for its allelleopathy. The roots contain juglone, an allelochemical which retards growth of competing plants under the canopy. However, it is the non-native plants which are most affected by this natural defense mechanism as they share no evolutionary history with the tree  – other native shrubs and understory species grow fine in proximity to walnut trees.

They can reach a height and width of 50-75 feet (though some older trees can be even larger in the right growing conditions, towering up to 100 feet). They do best in full sun with rich soil. The current champion on the Virginia Big Tree Registry lives in Westmoreland County and tops out at 104 feet and a canopy spread of 55 feet.

The wood of the black walnut is prized for its dark, rich luster and is used for the finest of woodworking projects and veneers. The nuts are prized by humans and animals alike for their taste and health benefits.

Native American tribes in the black walnut’s home territory (PA to GA and stretching as far west as Texas) made use of this versatile tree by using the dye from the husks to color baskets and used the oil to cook corn and beans.

In conclusion, the black walnut is an under-utilized native tree in the landscape but one which has tremendous ecological value and can provide beauty in a variety of settings.

Chris Anderson
White House Farm Foundation
1917 Kauffmans Mill Rd.
Luray, VA 22835


For more information:

[1] Tallamy, Douglas W., Bringing Nature Home,  Timber Press, Portland, (2007), p.192

Tree Feature – Black Oak

Black Oak – Quercus velutina

In its heyday, the Virginia Oak Tannery in Luray, Virginia processed 1800 steer hides daily. Within the facility, up to 100,000 cattle hides were in the process of being tanned at any given time, each taking about six months to finish using the tannin derived from the bark of local trees. Situated on the banks of the Hawksbill Creek, the manufacturing process used the clear waters flowing out of the Blue Ridge mountains to turn rawhide into ‘soles, uppers, bags, belts, vests, chairs’, as listed in an advertisement.

The original Borst Tannery was destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1880, the Virginia Oak Tannery (also known as the Deford Tannery) began operations which continued until 1980. During its 100 years of manufacturing, the tannery utilized bark from trees blanketing the surrounding hillsides and, Tanner’s Ridge Road, near Stanley, commemorates the importance of the industry. Pine Grove, the forested hollow at the base of Tanner’s Ridge, is covered by oaks and hemlock trees, both high in tannin, a natural chemical which binds with rawhide making it supple, water and bacteria resistant.

Leather was an essential material to early European settlers and tanneries were common across the Shenandoah Valley.  Native Americans also made leather using the natural curing enzymes found in the brains of the animals whose skins became clothing, shelter, rope and served many other utilitarian functions. Both tanning techniques highlight  humans’ reliance on natural materials, be they trees or the animals that feed on the acorns and vegetation in the forest.

In Common Native Trees of Virginia, published by the Virginia Department of Forestry (DoF), both chestnut oak and black oak are noted to have been used extensively in the tanning process.

IMG_6722In earlier times, the wood would have been brought out of the mountains to Luray via horse-drawn wagon where it was ground and the tannin leached out at the factory.

The black oak (Quercus velutina) reaches 50-80 feet at maturity and, according to the DoF, it enjoys a habitat along ridges and dry woods but does best on well-drained, rich soils. Velutina is Latin for velvet, referring to the soft new leaves. Black oak tends to hybridize with about a dozen other oak species. The current Virginia champion black oak grows in Prince George County with a height of 111 feet and a circumference of 274 feet.

Black oak is also known as ‘Yellow Oak’ or ‘quercitron’ due to a yellow pigment in the inner bark which is used for dyes.  It is known for numerous medicinal purposes, used by Native Americans for centuries.

This utilitarian tree supports wildlife with its acorns and serves as a host for many butterflies, moths and insects.  The leaves turn a dark yellow in the fall, adding to the spectrum of fall colors on mountainsides and landscapes ranging from New England to Florida and as far west as Texas. Several websites state that the black oak is seldom used for landscaping and this is one reason why White House Natives has chosen to promote this fine native species.

We will have limited numbers of two inch and two and a half inch caliper specimens of Quercus velutina available this fall.  Please reserve yours today. We will have larger crops coming on for 2016 and later, along with numerous other oak varieties native to our area. Stay tuned as we continue to expand based on customer needs and requests.

Chris Anderson
Executive Director, White House Farm Foundation
Luray, VA 22835


Works Cited:

Common Native Trees of Virginia, Tree Identification Guide, 2012 Virginia Department of Forestry, p. 61.

Page The County of Plenty, A Spirit of Independence, 1976, Page County Bicentennial Commission, p.106-107.

For more information on the Virginia Oak Tannery:

Tree Feature – Boxelder

At first glance, a boxelder tree looks like poison ivy grown into horrifyingly large proportions. The leaves resemble each other very closely, particularly when both are young.

One way to tell them apart, however, is the boxelder has opposite leaves while poison ivy has alternate leaves – but you have to look down the stem to notice this as the two photos below show nearly identical arrangements.

Both are native to Virginia, so they each have benefits to the environment. At this time, White House Natives is not growing poison ivy so we will focus on the boxelder tree, Acer negundo.

They are of small to medium stature, growing 30-60 feet in height and 1-2 ½ feet in diameter, commonly seen in river bottoms in sandy loam soils but they can also be happy on slopes with poorer soils.

One surprise about the boxelder is it is actually part of the maple family so its seeds resemble little helicopters as they flutter to the ground like those of the red maple, silver maple, sugar maple, etc. Squirrels consume the seeds as do several bird species.

Seeds of Boxelder

Seeds of Boxelder

There are 128 species of maple worldwide with 13 native to North America. Acer negundo is the only North American maple with compound leaves and these grow as three to seven leaflets.

The common name comes from the white wood which resembles that of boxwood and the pinnately compound leaves similar in appearance to those of elderberry. It is also commonly known as ash maple, river maple, boxelder maple, maple ash and other such derivatives of the name.

Unlike most other maples, A. negundo is dioecious as both a ‘female’ and ‘male’ tree are needed for reproduction.

It is fairly quick growing with a maximum average height of about 60-80 feet and a trunk diameter of 12-20 inches. It often has multiple trunks and appreciates full sun. The branches tend to break easily so, if planted as a quick shade tree, it should be in a location where maintenance won’t be a major factor.

Matt Deivert, president of White House Natives, notes “we will have a good supply of boxelder this fall in sizes ranging from two to three inch caliper and even some four inch and slightly larger caliper trees for instant impact.”

Acer negundo 2 inch caliper

Acer negundo 2″ caliper White House Natives


Chris Anderson, Executive Director
White House Farm Foundation
Luray, VA