Tree of the Month – Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

A major and rapid change is occurring in forests of the Eastern U.S. as the emerald ash borer kills one of the most prevalent native hardwood trees.

The larvae of Agrilus plenipennis feeds inside the bark of green and white ash killing the tree and, unfortunately, there are no natural predators to keep their population in check. Thousands of trees are already dead or in decline.  If the trend continues, in a matter of a few years, most ash trees will be gone.

This loss is of particular concern for watershed health as ash trees tend to thrive next to rivers and streams across Virginia and the mid-Atlantic.

Trees shade water, lowering temperatures and creating a healthy habitat for native species. They help keep soil in place and decrease erosion and their leaves, twigs, flowers and fruit help support macroinvertebrates. Too, the loss of ash trees opens the canopy, providing an opportunity for non-native invasive species to take hold or expand their coverage.

Fortunately, there is a native tree that thrives in the same habitat as ash: sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) can grow up to 145 tall and 14 feet wide; their massive girth makes them the largest of Eastern hardwoods and, according to the Virginia Department of Forestry, the largest deciduous tree in North America. Their large leaves (approximately six inches at maturity) make them ideal for providing shade along water ways or in the landscape. The canopy of mature trees can reach up to 70 feet.

Sycamore is one of the easiest trees to identify in the winter with its bold white limbs and trunk. Mature trees naturally shed bark in interesting patterns in shades of cream, tan and light gray. In winter, their fine structure is highlighted in the absence of leaves, appearing like tall, strong bones of the forest.

Sycamores are able to handle air pollution better than many trees making them a nice selection in urban areas. Due to their considerable size at maturity, allow them plenty of space to grow, avoiding placing them next to structures, utility lines or pavement which can be damaged by their roots. They are not drought tolerant so should be planted in areas where they get plenty of regular water such as adjacent to streams or ponds. Their shade is welcome on hot summer days but consideration should be given to the copious amount of leaves they shed in the fall if a manicured appearance is desired and the leaves require raking.  They can live 500-600 years so make good commemorative trees.

Sycamore is prone to anthracnose which can cause some of the leaves to shrivel and turn brown in the spring. Most trees put out new leaves to replace those lost and the fungus is not fatal or even seriously impairs the health of the tree. It can create sprouting branch clusters but these don’t hurt the tree.

The benefits to wildlife are many: birds eat the seeds, particularly the diminutive winter residents like goldfinch, dark-eyed juncos, finch and chickadees. Mammals dine on them as well – squirrels, muskrat and beaver. Many an owl has likely passed their day resting in the hollows of sycamore trunks and their twisting roots above ground provide comfortable shelter for hibernating bears. The leaves are also a host to the lovely Eastern tiger swallowtail.

Being a native tree, among other uses, Native Americans utilized the wood for cooking utensils and to make dugout canoes due to its strong but light characteristics. A tea can be made from the sap, though it reportedly takes a lot of sap to yield sufficient amounts to taste. The seed ball fluff and peeling bark make for good fire starters, particularly useful in wet conditions.

The American sycamore resembles its relative, the London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia) which is a hybrid between Platanus occidentalis  and Platanus orientalis.

The name sycamore comes from Greek for “fig mulberry” and occidentalis means “of the West” to distinguish it from its European relatives.

In conclusion, as we sadly witness the disappearance of ash trees from the landscape, at least there is one nice alternative which may be planted in its stead that is both beautiful and valuable to wildlife – both terrestrial and aquatic.

Chris Anderson
White House Farm Foundation
Luray, VA 22835

Tree of the Month – Quercus bicolor, Swamp White Oak

A tree with a common name with ‘swamp’ in it might make you think it thrives in permanently wet environments, however, the swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor) prefers moist soil that dries out occasionally. It grows naturally along streams and rivers and can tolerate spring floods but also can handle periods of drought as it develops a bi-layer root system: the upper roots grow fine when being submerged by flood waters and the deeper roots seek soil moisture during dry times.

This is a usual weather pattern here in the Shenandoah Valley where Page County receives 39 inches of annual rainfall with typically wet springs and periods of drought in August and September.

Swamp white oak is often found growing alongside other bottomland species such as hackberry, black walnut, shingle and pin oaks, American elm, silver maple and river birch. It grows comparatively fast, attaining mature heights of 60-70 feet (considered medium height by tree standards) with a trunk diameter of 2-3 feet.

Among the other oak species which thrive in hydric habitats are the overcup oak, swamp chestnut, shingle, bur and cherrybark oak. Those which grow best in xeric conditions are post oak, blackjack, bear, chinquapin and chestnut oak.

In the landscape, swamp white oak likes more acidic soil and is vulnerable to soil chlorosis (where soil is too alkaline) and should be planted where the pH is about 4.5-6.0.

The Latin name bicolor refers to the two-toned leaves – glossy green on top and silver white underneath. The underside is glaucus and feels almost like soft fur, an easy identifying characteristic.

Swamp white oaks are legacy trees, growing for 350 years or more. These ancient sentinels are witness to much human history but sometimes get intertwined with our dramas and sadder sagas. Such is the case with the swamp white oak in Highland County included in the Remarkable Trees of Virginia book*.

Some stories associate this tree with hangings but the oral history most validated is that it grew in proximity to a European homestead which had encroached on Native American’s ancestral lands. In 1763, a fight broke out when warriors enforced the established boundaries as agreed to in signed treaties. Several Europeans were killed and we do not know how many Indigenous people lost their lives. Native deaths are not often included with accounts of such encroachments.

What we do know is this swamp white oak tree has lived in an open meadow looks and, due to its size, appears like it could have been alive in the 1700s.  It also happens to be the state champion, towering upwards for 70 feet and solidly anchored by a trunk that is almost eight feet in diameter.


In summary, swamp white oak makes a great shade tree in the landscape and is a great choice for problematic areas which are wet in the spring and experience drought in the fall.

Chris Anderson
White House Farm Foundation
Luray, VA


* Hugo, Nancy Ross and Jeff Kirwan, Remarkable Trees of Virginia, (Virginia, Albemarle Books, 2008), p. 28.

New Jackets!, October 2017

WHN has been lucky to have a dedicated and consistent group of workers from Shen-Paco for many years.  Winter is coming, so we felt it was time to outfit our crew in some new WHN swag to keep everyone warm on these chilly fall days.

A big thank-you to our crew.  We couldn’t do it without you!

New Jackets 3
New Jackets 2
New Jackets 1

Tree of the Month – Diospyros virginiana, Common Persimmon

The walnuts are hanging green heavy on their branches in the Shenandoah Valley, ready to drop with a waft of wind. Through the mist of foggy mornings, hackberry leaves are turning yellow, about the same shade as paw-paw foliage, and are beginning to welcome the change of seasons as autumn creeps through the forest. It is early fall and the woods are full of activity as squirrels scoot around, gathering acorns and hiding their caches, perhaps to be revisited later in the winter, possibly forgotten and left to lucky marauders.

Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana), one of the most prized of the late fall fruits, are steadily ripening on their branches, a treat for almost all forest animals including opossums, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, deer, fox and birds. Many small insects enjoy the bounty as they make quick work of the soft sweet fruit when it falls to the ground in early winter.

In forestry circles, there are a few jokes that are guaranteed to entertain all but the one who bears the brunt of the amusement: such is the case with convincing an unsuspecting victim to bite into an unripe persimmon. In a matter of seconds, it feels like every ounce of moisture is vacuumed from one’s mouth, an uncomfortable sensation that persists for much longer than it seems like it should. Care should be taken when eating persimmons to make sure they are sufficiently soft and ripe, generally late fall to early winter.

The fruit pulp can be made into bread, pies, pudding, molasses, beer and vinegar. Called ‘nature’s sugarplums’ by Euell Gibbons[1], he recommends harvesting ripe fruits by spreading a tarp under the tree and shaking the branches. The name ‘persimmon’ is derived from putchaminpasiminan, or pessamin, from Powhatan, an Algonquian language of the eastern United States[2]. The Latin name Diospyros comes from the ancient Greek word for “divine” and “grain”.

Persimmons grow across the entire eastern half of the United States and can thrive on rocky slopes, river bottoms and adapt to about every woodland situation in between. They are hardy, often enjoying edge habitats and are medium in stature, growing to heights of 40 to 60 feet with diameters of one to two feet.

The genus Diospyros has around 450 species: 200 or so in lowland Malaysia; quite a few in tropical Africa; somewhat fewer in Latin America; some in Australia and India; and a few outliers in the United States, the Mediterranean, and Japan.[3]

Belonging to the ebony family (Ebenaceae), persimmon wood is very hard, close grained and dark brown to black with the sapwood and heartwood a lighter shade. The wood is made into golf club heads, weaving spindles and shuttles as it can withstand force. It makes for strikingly beautiful musical instruments, boxes or small pieces of furniture.

The City of Suffolk boasts the state champion persimmon with a height of 85 feet and circumference of 152 inches.  Champion trees are ranked by height, canopy spread and trunk circumference on a point system, and, at 254 points, this fine specimen almost meets the measurements of the national champion in Ohio which comes in at 256 points.

One of the easiest ways to recognize the persimmon tree is by its distinctive chunky bark which resembles charcoal briquettes. Deeply fissured, the bark is easy to spot as no other bark has the same type of deep box-like indentations (though dogwood are similar, they are not as deeply carved as persimmon bark). In a mature forest, a whole world of fascination can be discovered by examining this type of tree bark with a magnifying glass. A subtle web of life consisting of lichens, caterpillars, resting moths, beetles and other tiny beings often make their homes or seek temporary refuge in the protection of such patterned bark. Cottonwood, dogwood and white oak are also good candidates for such detailed examinations.

In the landscape, persimmon trees can be multi-trunked or pruned into a single-trunk leader. The branches droop gracefully and with the oblong, ovate leaves, have a slightly tropical appearance. In autumn, the leaves turn shades of yellow but can also range into oranges and reds. They leaf out late in the spring, and flower after the leaves have grown to a moderate size.

They are dioecious so, if being grown for their fruit, a male and a female should be planted in proximity to one another.

Once established, they tend to grow without significant threat from pests or diseases, bear fruit in seven to eight years, grow quickly (and colonize from their root system) and can grow in full sun to part shade. The persimmon is a nice native tree and a good choice as a specimen or for soil stabilization purposes.

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


[1] Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus,(New York,  David McKay Company, 1962), p.164.
[3] Colin Tudge, The Tree, (New York, Crown Publishers, 2005), p.229.

Nursery Industry News, Sept 2017

It is a great time to be in the nursery and landscape business.   We have had the opportunity this summer to tour numerous nurseries up and down the East Coast and the quality and volume of material is very impressive, from liners to finished nursery stock being grown by innovative and industry-leading companies.  The industry is still trying to recover from the recession with a lag created in scaling production and inventory levels up to meet current demands while prices are just getting back to where they were in early 1990’s.  The down side is, if you take into account inflation and the increase in production costs (labor, equipment, land, fertilizer, chemicals, an so on) the industry is still undervalued.  Being in a labor-intensive industry, this is by far both landscapers’ and nurserymen’s largest concern and a key element holding back growth.  We are fortunate to be part of an industry that is family-oriented and comes together through numerous national, state (VNLA) and regional (NVNLA) industry associations that help to unite our industry and provide a conduit for promoting value and solving common problems.

There is still a tremendous shortage of larger caliper (2½” + ) shade trees country-wide in the industry.  We are seeing the 2” caliper size availability come back as growers are now harvesting and selling from larger blocks of plants and they will hopefully be able to hold back some material for larger sizes,  which landscapers will start to see the benefit of the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019.  The ornamental tree market availability (Dogwood, Redbud, Cherry) has come back quicker than shade trees as have evergreens; especially Green Giant Arborvitae from 5’ up to 8’.  The container plant market is also much better since these crops have a 1-2 year turnaround while shade trees take 3 to 7 years.  In order to secure large quantities of quality material orders need to placed early, sometimes as much as 6 months to a year in advance as most growers are still selling out of available material.  Communication, planning, commitments, and long term relationships are vital for all aspects of the landscape and nursery industry in order to be successful both now and for the long term.


Tree of the Month – Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)

‘Forest bathing’ began in Japan in 1982 when it became part of the national health program. It consists of a meditative stroll through the woods with a focus on really hearing, seeing and sensing the woods such as by noticing the textures and colors of trees, the motion of branches and listening to the sounds of birds and other wildlife who share the space. It is catching on in the U.S. and, as anyone who gets out in nature regularly can attest, is a simple way to feel better physically and mentally. Medical science is also realizing the benefits of forest bathing by lowering blood pressure, stress hormones and blood glucose levels. One of the best things about this simple therapy is that it is free and available to everyone.

However, for those who don’t have easy or regular access to forests or the mobility for a proper forest bath, the willow oak may provide a similar benefit simply by sitting nearby and gazing up into its canopy watching its leaves which move in a graceful and mesmerizing fashion with the slightest breeze.

Shaped like willow leaves, the willow oak (Quercus phellos) is actually not related to willows and instead, belongs to the red oak section of the oak family (genus Quercus, subgenus Quercus, section Lobatæ). The leaves are long (two to five inches), smooth and tipped with tiny bristles. They are alternate and even though most guidebooks note them turning yellow in the fall, at White House Natives, they tended to be more of a lovely crimson-orange last autumn.

Willow oaks frequently line city streets and urban landscaping including parking lots as they are long-lived, don’t require much care, are virtually pest- and disease-free and  are shallow-rooted, making them easy to transplant and they don’t tend to buckle asphalt as much as other medium to large hardwoods. They still need plenty of space to grow as they typically reach heights of 50-80 feet (max. 120 feet) with pyramidal shaped canopies when young and maturing into an oblong shape at maturity. In lower-light situations, they benefit from light pruning to encourage a balanced, strong and full canopy.

Natural pyramidal shape of willow oak growing in full sun

Due to their shallow roots, the trees do not react well when additional soil is added after they are established. As little as one to two inches of soil over their roots can disrupt the ability of the tree to access water

They require regular deep watering, particularly when getting established, and can benefit from staking when transplanted at smaller caliper sizes.  They can tolerate a wide range of soil types but benefit by more acidic pH levels but are tolerant of drought and air pollution. To be the happiest, they enjoy regular water and grow naturally in rich lowlands, swamp, river bottoms, floodplains and rich sandy uplands.

When planted in full sun, they create valuable shade in park and urban settings and their acorns tend to be shallow and more saucer-shaped than other oak trees. These acorns are relished by squirrels, raccoons and deer and in more rural settings and in the forest, acorns provide the bulk of winter food for wild turkeys.

Buck Moth on willow oak at WHN

In its most southern range of Mississippi and Arkansas , the willow oak can occasionally remain evergreen throughout the year.

In conclusion, if you need to relax, you might try the new therapy called tree bathing. Most people who love and are fascinated by trees would agree that getting out on a trail to makes them feel better without needing to cite medical studies. Trees are not only necessary for our survival by sequestering carbon, helping keep our water ways clean of sediment and pollution and producing clean air but just may be key to our mental well-being. So go ahead, take a walk in the forest or try placing a chair, hammock or blanket underneath and commune with a favorite tree.

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