Tree of the Month – Hamamelis virginiana (Witch Hazel)

With spidery yellow petals and a delicate citrus scent, the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) flower is unique among shrubs of eastern forests; delicate tentacles extend outwards from the twigs, often overlooked by the foliage on the branches in the fall. Several hybrid witch hazels bloom in the spring, but our native is a late autumn-blooming beauty.

They generally grow 10-25 feet tall as twisted shrub or small tree, frequently tucked under the canopy of other moist, upland eastern hardwood trees. Seeds can shoot up to 20 feet from ripe pods and they often form clumps. Once established, they tend to be pest and disease free and do not require much, if any, care. For full flowering, they require moisture in the summer and a period of winter cold. They are unique in North America as they are the only tree with fruit, flowers and next year’s buds on the plant simultaneously.

In addition to its attractiveness in the landscape, the medicinal properties of witch hazel are well known by many Indigenous cultures across North America as the shrubs grow from Nova Scotia to Georgia and west to Minnesota and Missouri. Native American Indians were (and are) the first doctors and botanists in North America, understanding the healing properties of native trees, shrubs, and plants and the specific seasons in which they should be harvested.

Drugstores carry commercial extracts today. Dried leaves, bark and twigs are used as an astringent and for treating a variety of maladies including tumors, eye infection, burns and hemorrhoids. The mechanism of witch hazel astringency involves tightening of skin proteins which draw together, forming a protective covering and promoting healing.1

Witch hazel is one of the most common home botanical remedies in the US today, perhaps even surpassing aloe. It is sometimes applied with a steam towel to bruises and strains or in a cold compress to treat fevers.2

They are related to sweet gum and the common name refers to their use in divining or “witching” water.

American Forests lists a Russel County, Virginia witch hazel nominated in 2017 as the current national champion.

For survivalists and “preppers” and those interested in continuing Indigenous knowledge, witch hazel is a good plant to know and grow.

For landscapers, witch hazel offers solid structure throughout the summer and can be planted as a specimen shrub or small tree, border or mixed hedge. They add late season interest, particularly when planted in locations where their sweet flowers can be enjoyed.

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

1Guide to Popular Natural Products, Facts and Comparisons, Missouri, 1999, p. 228.
2Magic and Medicine of Plants, Readers Digest Association, Inc., New York, 1986, p. 345.

Around the Farm, March 2018

We recently completed our digging for Spring 2018. Check out some of the action in the gallery below!

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.