Around the Farm, 26th May 2018

Some photos of our rapidly-growing stock with this year’s great spring weather and abundant rains.

Native of the Month, Robinia psuedoacacia, Black Locust

The south boasts some mighty fine natural smells in the spring and summer– honeysuckle, wisteria, lilac, magnolias all in bloom – but the flowers of black locust rank near the top for sweet perfume.

With creamy white panicles resembling wisteria, the flowers of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) create a stunning display against the delicate green foliage in early summer. Their fragrance wafts through warm air but admirers only have about ten days to enjoy them as they do not last long.

Ask any farmer what is the best wood for fence posts and many will likely name locust. Indeed, its longevity, even when in contact with soil, is well known and the early Europeans of Jamestown built their first structures using locust. A century later, Mark Catesby, historian and explorer, noted that these original buildings were still standing strong, attesting to locust’s hardiness. Those who heat their homes with wood stoves eagerly seek out locust as an all-nighter wood that burns hot.

As with many native plants, the benefits of locust certainly came from Native Americans. Black locust is native to the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains but Europeans found it growing in the Piedmont and coastal areas when they arrived. Sophisticated and extensive trade routes existed among Native peoples for centuries and it is likely that Shawnee, Cherokee and/or Haudenosaunee shared seeds of black locust with members of the Powhatan Confederacy and other nations to the east. The strength of the black locust wood made it a preferable material not only for building but also for tools, bows and arrow shafts.

Black locust trees now grow around the world as their reputation as a preferred building material, beautiful landscape tree and source of excellent honey spread and seeds and seedlings were exported to other countries.

The scientific name Robinia honors Jean Robin, landscaper and botanist for the King IV of France. Pseudoacacia refers to the leaflets resemblance to the acacia tree.

They belong to the legume family and have alternate, pinnately compound leaves with 7-19 oblong leaflets. The distinctive dark, braided bark resembles thick and fibrous rope with furrows and ridges.

Black locust enjoys full sun and can reach heights averaging 70-80 feet with a diameter of two to three feet. They do not tolerate shade very well. Given plenty of room, they can grow surprisingly attractive and balanced canopies. Their seeds resemble flat pods and rabbits, deer, bobwhite quail, mourning doves and others consume them. Honey connoisseurs seek out the light – sometimes almost clear – honey, made more valuable as some years are much better than others for nectar production. George Petrides and Janet Wehr note in Eastern Trees[1] that young shoots and bark can sometimes be poisonous to livestock.

In the landscape, black locust is valuable as a pioneer species, coming up quickly in disturbed sites. As with other legumes, they have the ability to fix nitrogen, an important trait in rebuilding soil structure following disturbances such as fire or land clearing. They are also good at preventing erosion, as their hardiness allows them to take hold and grow fast on slopes. They are often used on mine reclamation sites due to their hardy nature and ability to withstand acidic soils.

They are generally not bothered by many pests, though leaf miners can occasionally blemish the foliage. Their tendency for limb die back makes them better suited to larger landscapes away from buildings or parking lots but placed in locations where their fragrant blossoms can be enjoyed and they can spread out unimpeded by other trees.

As noted in the book, The Remarkable Trees of Virginia, in 2007, the Virginia champion black locust graced the yard of a home in Wytheville with a height of 95 feet and a circumference exceeding 168 inches. Its canopy spread shows how beautiful black locust can be in the landscape. The current champion lives in Fauquier County in Upperville with a height of 71 feet, a crown spread of 74 feet and circumference of 195 inches.

As noted in the Remarkable Trees of Virginia2, in 2007, the Virginia champion black locust graced the yard of a home in Wytheville with a height of 95 feet and a circumference exceeding 168 inches. Its canopy spread shows how beautiful black locust can be in the landscape. The current champion lives in Fauquier County in Upperville with a height of 71 feet, a crown spread of 74 feet and circumference of 195 inches.

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

[1] George Petrides, Janet Wehr, Eastern Trees, (Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1988),  p. 230.

[2] Nancy Hugo Ross and Jeff Kirwan, Remarkable Trees of Virginia, (Earlysville, Albemarle Books, 2008), p 115.

Spring at the Farm: Preparing for the Next Crop

A few photos around this farm this spring.

WHN is now at the point where we will be replanting some of our original tree blocks from 2012-2013.  The first step in this process is field ripping.

Field ripping or subsoiling is soil cultivation practice that helps reduce hardpan layers created in soils due to surface compaction or from using older tillage practices, including moldboard plows that turn the soil over in a furrow slice at the same depth each time when plowed.  This was a common agriculture tool and practice for rows crops like corn and soybeans prior to the more modern no-till methods or chisel plows utilized now.  The fields we are replanting were ripped or subsoiled with a smaller single-shank plow back in 2012 and 2013, but prior to this the field was in row crop production.  Eric has been able to locate a larger subsoiler/ripper and larger tractor to help break up residual hard layers and to help fill in holes where trees were harvested.  This is especially important in the drive roads that were planted in turf; the compaction from trucks and equipment over the past 5 years adds up and needs to be addressed in order to provide a good medium for root growth.

The two-shank subsoiler/ripper we are using now has a winged wedge at the bottom of the steel shank that goes into the soil 12-18”.  When pulled behind the tractor, the ground will actually raise up a couple of inches.  We try to subsoil/rip each field twice, prior to planting or replanting.  Ideally, we would like to do this in two different directions. In this case, since we are targeting a field that was in previously in nursery production, we are subsoiling parallel to our planting rows–paying special attention to where trees were planted and to the drive roads.  The next step in the soil preparation will be to disk the field to break up the vegetation and mix the organic matter from the turf and clover plantings back into the soil and prepare a seedbed for this summer’s cover crop of sudangrass and buckwheat.  This fall we will subsoil and disk again prior to replanting trees or putting in a winter cover crop prior to a spring planting.

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