The Shrub for All Seasons

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Some species of woody plants are known for particular traits obvious in certain seasons such as the vibrant color of red maple leaves in fall or the spectacular flowers of dogwood in spring. Witch-hazel is one of my favorite specimens of the Wintergreen mountainside because it offers outstanding traits throughout the season. This Nine Minute Naturalist will take a deep dive into the awesome qualities of witch-hazel.

Witch-hazel is a common fixture in our oak-hickory forest type. This shrub tends to favor deep, rich soil locations, often near water sources or along forest edges. It can grow to 20 feet and creates a lovely canopy effect due to its arching branches of smooth gray bark growing in multi-stemmed clumps and is in the witch-hazel and Sweetgum family.

 

Leaf gall

 

This arching shrub offers something unique in each season. In spring, witch-hazel unfurls a lovely green broadly ovate scalloped leaf that generally arrives a bit before the overcanopy of oaks leaf out. By summer, the dark green leaves have formed a dense canopy for hikers to walk under along our trail system. An inspection of the leaves in summer reveals that witch-hazel is growing an odd cap atop its leaf. The witch-hazel leaf is host to a number of distinctive insect galls, one of which is shaped like a witch’s hat. The fall and winter are when the witch-hazel stands out. In fall, the leaves change from dark green to a buttery, yellow color and the seed pods begin to burst, which pop loudly enough to be heard by the attentive hiker. This violent popping of the pod sends seeds flying up to 30 feet away. Once the leaves fall off in late fall, we get the visual treat of a flowering shrub amongst the dreariness of early winter. In October, flowers bloom at the base of the stem and leaves, often hidden from sight until leaves fall off, surprise us with a show of color when none is expected. The flowers are amongst the hardiest of flowers, blooming for approximately eight weeks. When the temperature dips low, the flowers curl up and look ready to fall off. When warmer days return, the ribbonlike petals unfurl again as if to mock the winter weather. The fragrance of the flower is minimal in cold weather environments, but a few sprigs cut from the shrub and placed in a vase with water in the home offers a surprisingly fragrant scent.

 

Flowers

 

Another reason to love this shrub is the medicinal aspect. Witch-hazel has long been used in traditional medicine as a natural remedy for certain skin conditions such as acne, burns, hemorrhoids, insect bites, and varicose veins. The liniment is made from an extract from leaves, twigs and bark and is still on the market today.

The time is right to venture into the drab forest of late fall and find this dynamic flowering shrub that calls Wintergreen home. Use the distinct flowers to help you identify witch-hazel and make sure to appreciate it throughout the season.

A Forest Full of Stress

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


As I wandered through the Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve at the peak of fall foliage, I noticed that the vast majority of trees in the preserve had dropped their leaves a bit too early. Other locations around the mountain showed similar behavior signaling an abrupt end to the growing season. The forest at Wintergreen is in a time of great stress and this Nine Minute Naturalist will be focused on some of the causes and solutions to a stressed-out forest.

 

Black ash

 

The Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve (SSNP) is a microcosm of the greater forest at Wintergreen. It has many acute and universal factors causing decline throughout the preserve. A major problem is introduced forest problems. The preserve is laden with ash (white and black varieties) and American beech. The emerald ash borer, an invasive brought in via packing materials from China, has devastated all ash from Colorado to Massachusetts. The insect attacked the black ash first and has since moved on to killing the white ash in the preserve and throughout Wintergreen. The beech is being killed by beech bark disease, a disease complex featuring a non-native scale insect which bores into the bark and causes cracks that the native nectria fungus enters and deforms the stem. The monoculture of beech in the nature preserve are slowly breaking and ending on the forest floor.

 

Emerald Ash Borer

 

A few acute stressors not caused by introduced species include ice, flood and drought damage. These factors are problematic not only in the SSNP but throughout the Wintergreen landscape. A simple glance to the treetops in the SSNP or any exposed ridge will reveal a mass of broken off tops as a result of ice and wind damage. This damage rarely results in instant mortality but instead is a stepping stone on the path to the trees demise. Flooding has been a constant problem the past few years and the 10, 50, and 100-year storms seem to be happening at shortening intervals. Root damage and exposure is common during flash floods that seem to be common at Wintergreen lately. Before our period of flooding in the past 3 or 4 years, drought was the stress point trees were dealing with. This combination of stress factors is not generally lethal by itself but when combined they shorten the lifespan of many trees.

Another overall factor that is particular to high elevation forests such as Wintergreen is climate change. The SSNP is a case study for this change. This preserve is unique because it offers a slightly lower surface temperatures due to the volume of water running through this location. This has allowed species common in New England and Canada to find a foothold in Virginia. Species such as black ash or speckled alder are living at their southern range. Any change in temperature will weaken these northern forest species and they won’t be able to deal with additional health factors. The Nature Foundation is partnering with VCU professor Catherine Hulshof to study the effects of climate change on our forest at multiple sites at Wintergreen.

The solution to constant forest stress is resilience. The way to achieve this goal is diversity in the forest. New species-specific pests or diseases will arise and the key to withstanding the loss of one species is having many that will fill the gap. What this means for the Wintergreen homeowner is when you have planting opportunities, attempt to increase the diversity of your forest by planting a variety of native trees that will excel in our changing landscape. Another recommendation is be proactive in your decision-making on how to treat individual trees. If an insect or disease descends on your location don’t wait to act but chose quickly whether the tree is worth the expense of treatment. This will ensure the tree retains its vigor to fight the other myriad of stressors coming its way.

If you have a question on particular trees in your forest feel free to send me images at forestmanage@tnfw.org or call me at 434-325-8169 and set up a time for me to look at your forest to provide recommendations.

The Top Trails of Fall

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Having a dramatic rise in elevation from home to work makes it clear that the peak of color is upon us. With the peak of color comes the rising urge to be outside enjoying the crisp weather and the vibrant colors that make Wintergreen’s forest so spectacular. This week’s Nine Minute Naturalist will cover my favorite hiking options at Wintergreen that will allow you to appreciate the diversity of trees and colors along our trails.

 

Hemlock Springs Trail

 

My favorite loop trail to maximize the eye candy of fall is the Hemlock Springs Trail into the Cedar Cliffs Main Trail. A key component to this loop is that it has ecosystem diversity. Hemlock Springs Trail has a footpath that meanders along a creek at the bottom of a gorge. This location causes a microclimate environment that supports a northern forest type. The stretch of trail is loaded with sugar maple and birch which offers a ton of yellow and orange color amongst the green oak trees. As you head over to Cedar Cliffs Main Trail via the Cedar Cliffs South Trail, hikers get a wonderful overlook peering into the Shamokin Gorge. This vantage is a unique view from where you can see and hear the Lower Shamokin Falls cutting through the gorge. As you head up the rocky Cedar Cliffs Main, you will notice a very different trail. The trail traverses the top of a ridge full of heath such as mountain laurel, blueberry and azalea. This ridge does offer some good color but it is a bit more muted than Hemlock Springs. The bulk of the ridge is made up of northern red oak, hickories and black gum that create a nice mixture of green, yellow, and red for you to enjoy as you labor up the hill. The loop is a bit over two miles and is rated as moderate.

 

Shamokin Springs

 

Another combination of trails that I love hiking at the peak of fall is the Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve (SSNP) onto the Old Appalachian Trail (OAT). This has similar qualities to the Hemlock Springs/Cedar Cliffs Main loop in that it features a microclimate created by water. The SSNP is located amongst a braided stream in a depression at high elevation. It features trees such as speckled alder and black ash common throughout the Northeast and Canada. The main color comes from the sugar and red maple, birch and black gum. American beech is common throughout the nature preserve and stays green longer than most trees in our forest. Combining this green amongst the reds and yellows create a lovely walk during the color peak. The understory is laden with spicebush and witch hazel which offer lovely yellows. At the back of the SSNP, connect with the OAT and take a left (south for those directionally disposed). This stretch of trail is an old logging road that features a lot of pioneer species such as sassafras. Sassafras in the fall has a range of color on each leaf and adds a great accent to this walk. Stay on the OAT and cross Laurel Springs Drive. This section increases in rockiness as you near an overlook with views to the west. Note the swatches of pine that offers a great evergreen dichotomy to the changing forest on the southeast facing slopes of Torrey Ridge. Head back to the SSNP and finish the loop. This hike is approximately 2.5 miles and is rated as easy to moderate.

 

To the Old Appalachian Trail

 

A couple other options I highly recommend are The Plunge and Stoney Creek Park Trail. The Plunge is great not because of the tree color along the hike but because it offers the best views at Wintergreen. The view south to Three Ridges and the Priest are spectacular at peak foliage. This trail is rated moderate to difficult but is only .4 miles out and back. The Stoney Creek Park Trail is on my list of great fall options because it has a wonderful diversity of tree species ranging from southern red oak to persimmon to sycamore and also because of its elevation. Being at the bottom of the elevation range on Wintergreen property means it has a different peak foliage time. When the leaves are past peak at the top of the mountain, head to the bottom to get great foliage.

We have entered the hiking sweet spot. The time when the weather is crisp and cool, the bugs have relented, and the foliage is its peak. Get out on our trails and find your favorite spots to be awed by the nature at Wintergreen.

***One note about fall hiking is to know that hunting season is upon us and to be aware of the rules and regulations where you go hiking. The only trail affected by hunting at Wintergreen is the Lower Shamokin Falls. It passes through Wintergreen primitive lots where hunting is allowed.

The Fruit of Fall

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


The imagery of fall and the coming winter is based around decline and dormancy. One of the sweet surprises of the season is coming across plants full of vibrant fruit. While most plants are done spending energy in preparation of harsh winter weather, some plants bring diversity to our landscape by producing fruit at an unlikely time. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will highlight some of the plants growing in our landscape that provide a lovely contrast of color amidst a drab background.

 

Hawthorn

 

One of my favorite trees throughout the forests of Wintergreen is hawthorn. This member of the rose family is best known for its lovely white flowers and their gigantic thorns. Their red, edible fruit matures in early to mid-fall. This small tree produces robust amounts of berries beloved by animals and humans alike. The nutritious, tart berry is packed with nutrients and has been used to treat medical issues such as heart disease and kidney problems. Besides being used for medicinal purposes, it can be made into jam, juice, or baked into pies. A much-anticipated backyard tradition in my backyard is the yearly appearance of a flock of cedar waxwing descending upon my hawthorn to devour the berries stuck on the branches long into winter. This tree is plentiful along the Old Appalachian Trail along with many other Wintergreen trails.

 

Winterberry

 

Winterberry is a deciduous holly that brightens the fall and winter landscape. This shrub produces a bountiful crop of red berries that stay on the plant long after the leaves turn yellow and fall off. This plant is native from Nova Scotia south to Florida and west all the way to Missouri. A wide variety of species use winterberry as a food source. Many birds such as robins, cedar waxwings, and woodpeckers find the red fruit irresistible. Many mammals feed on the berries including squirrels, rabbits, and fox. This plant prefers moist soils and can be found in mass along the Allen Creek Nature Preserve, creating a winter birding paradise.

 

Persimmon

 

One of the sweetest sights of late fall and winter is a persimmon tree laden with fruit. These trees grow to 60 ft and have a very unique, thick, scaly bark. The fruit of this tree make it a popular specimen for wildlife when food becomes scarce. This fruit matures only after the first hard frost of the fall/winter season. The fruit’s coloring starts yellowish-green and changes to yellowish-orange as it matures. In its final ripe stage, it is reddish-orange to purple and then it falls to the ground. Only at this stage is it fit for human consumption. Attempting to eat persimmon before proper ripening will result in the worst case of cotton mouth. I suggest waiting until the fruit is falling to the ground to collect and eat the persimmon fruit. It is very healthy and contains more potassium than a banana. You will have to compete with the regional wildlife as it is eaten by almost every specimen walking and flying about the Wintergreen landscape. A great spot to find persimmon is the Stoney Creek Park Trail.

Once the leaves fall and the cold weather descends, the outdoor enthusiast expects a colorless palate. These fine specimens in the Wintergreen forest break the dullness of winter and offer vibrant color and in some cases a tasty treat. Get out onto the trails and find the fruit of fall.

The Rowdy Rut

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


So much of the beauty of autumn is a glimpse at the phenomena of nature. Hawk migrations, leaf change, and monarchs heading south are truly wonders. Another phenomenon that affects us all is the whitetail deer rut. From drivers that have to dodge a streaking buck or hunters trying catch the peak of the rut, this strange time is worth studying. This week’s Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the whitetail’s breeding season.

 

 

As I have addressed in previous editions of The Nine Minute Naturalist, autumn changes are governed by photoperiod. Hawks decide to move south, and leaves change colors based on day length. The behavior of a deer is also driven by photoperiod. Since late summer, the changes have been occurring as the days shrink. The male deer or bucks begin to separate from their bachelor groups and become more solitary. As the testosterone builds, the bucks start the pre-rut period. It tends to be characterized by bucks starting to make rubs and scrapes. Rubs are portions of small trees that have had the bark ripped off by a male deer rubbing their antlers on the tree. They do this primarily to mark territory and intimidate other bucks. A scrape is a patch of ground laid bare by a buck to leave scent behind as a means of communication. These patches are usually under an overhanging branch, which is also used to leave scent behind. The pre-rut period usually runs through all of October. The number of scrapes and rubs increases as we near the actual rut.

 

 

The actual rut is a much shorter period of time usually occurring the first two weeks of November in Virginia. This period of time is when female deer or does begin to enter estrus. The pattern of activity changes for bucks from making scrapes and rubs to actively chasing does and searching bedding areas for does entering estrus. A doe will only stay in full estrus for 24 hours so the chase is on for bucks to be the first to find a doe ready to breed. During this portion of time a buck can increase his acreage covered 10x. Once they find a willing doe, they will stay with that doe for 24 hours and breed several times. When that period is over, the search for does in estrus continues. This period of time is when car/buck interactions are most likely to occur. Their search for does will take them to many places including the side of the road.

 

 

The post rut is a period of recovery. The testosterone levels are dipping greatly and the stomach begins to dominate the actions of a buck. Bucks can be so worn down after a heavy rut period they are susceptible to mortality if a hard, early winter hits. Does that did not get bred or didn’t conceive during peak rut will again go into estrus. Most of the post rut activity is done by subordinate bucks that didn’t get to breed during the early November rut. The dominant males will focus on restoring winter reserves and will become very cautious and skittish.

The phenomenon known as the rut is spectacular to be able to witness in the woods. You don’t have to be a hunter to partake. Increasing your time in nature and on the trails of Wintergreen is a sure way to witness part of this outstanding autumn action.