The Sweet Science of Sugaring

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!


It is odd how cold days in the middle of winter can make me think fondly of the smell of maple sap boiling into a sweeter form. Sure enough, as I walked by a sugar maple tree the other day, my thoughts went to a pot of boiling sweetness. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go in depth on the science of sugaring.

The process of maple sugaring was first introduced to European settlers by Native Americans who long ago found the benefits of boiling this sweet substance. Originally the product produced was maple sugar, a much easier form to store and travel with. Now the cash crop is maple syrup, ideal for use on pancakes, waffles, coffee and tea. Virginia politicians such as Governor Berkley and Thomas Jefferson wrote of the worthy qualities of maple sugar. Jefferson saw maple sugar as a means to break from dependance on the West Indies for sugar cane. He planted a sugar maple plantation at Monticello from Vermont stock. Alas, the Piedmont is not an ideal growing site for sugar maples and the plantation no longer exists. Head west and you will find sugar maples in much larger quantities. Highland County’s sugar maple production is the best in the state and has grown into a lovely sugar maple festival (which is sadly cancelled for 2021). Wintergreen has a bounty of sugar maples and for years we produced a high-quality syrup…if I might say so myself.

 

 

There are a few key components of maple sugaring. The first is to make sure you collect the first fruits. As the days creep above freezing, and temperatures average 35-45 degrees and are accompanied by freezing nights, the taps had best be in the trees. This process depends on location and microclimate. For instance, maple stands in western New York won’t be ready to tap until late February at the earliest, while the taps have just been installed in Highland County. At tree at the bottom of a cold ravine will not be as productive as a sugar maple at the top of the ravine. The first fruit from a sugar maple will have the highest sugar content and will yield the best quality syrup.

A couple more key factors are site and tree selection. My favorite sites are high elevation sites facing east/southeast.  This allows for the requisite temperatures but increases the amount of time for the sap to run due to receiving the earliest sunlight. The choice of trees is important as well. The tree must be over 10 inches in diameter, but shy away from necessarily choosing the biggest specimen. Over-mature trees will not provide great yields, so don’t be tempted to tap only the largest options available. Additionally, open grown trees will outproduce species in a dense forest. A productive tree will produce 10 gallons of sap per tap. Additional taps can be placed for every 6-8 inches in diameter.

 

 

Tapping a tree is making a hole in the tree for sap to run out. The diameter of the hole should be around 5/16” and 3 inches deep. Hammer the tap into the hole with a couple sharp blows and attach your collection device. This can take multiple forms. Buckets and bags are the easiest and most common collection devices. They will need to be checked and emptied daily. If you are using a tube system to deposit sap in a collection devise, you do not need to be quite as diligent due to it depositing into a large, closed container. Make sure you store sap in a refrigerator or outside in a cold, dark location.

 

 

The boiling is the part that certainly stirs up memories for me. The sweet smell of sap boiling is one of my all-time favorites. I highly recommend boiling outside or in a location that sticky evaporation won’t cause a problem. First, figure out your water boiling point, which changes with elevation. Then add 7.1 degrees and you have the temperature at which you have maple syrup. Keep a large container at a rolling boil and be sure to add sap as you get towards the bottom of your pan. As your sap reaches syrup status, decrease your heat and keep an eye on your thermometer. Syrup will reach candy and sugar status very quickly so be vigilant. Pour your hot syrup into a clean container, seal the can and your syrup can be stored for up to a year.

You will know you have hit the end of sap gathering season when the color changes. When the clarity of sap gives way to a yellow hue, the tree is preparing to break bud. This yellow is an increase in bacteria and will taint your syrup.

Go forth and find some prime sugar maples and get to tapping. If you need tree identification, send a picture to forestmanage@tnfw.org. If you would like to borrow a tap and bucket to use for the season contact me and I can lend you the resources. Happy sugaring!

Deadly Disease

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!


While we continue to live in a world flush with pandemic, the animal kingdom also dwells under a constant state of attack. Numerous species such as bats, dogs, birds and deer all face an uncertain future due to emerging disease. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will catalog different diseases that threaten the ecosystem we hold dear.

The disease garnering much attention and funding these days is white nose syndrome decimating bat populations in the eastern US. This fungal disease, found first in upstate NY, affects the skin of the muzzle, ears and wings of hibernating bats. This disease damages tissue as well as awakes the bat from hibernation, causing it to burn through precious reserves. First found in 2006, some species such as the little brown, tri-colored, and northern bat have seen populations decrease by 90%. The endangered Indiana bat has seen populations crash by up to 50% in some areas. The commonly seen big brown bat seems to be holding a constant, while the endangered Virginia big-eared bat appears unaffected due to yeast that grows in its fur. An estimated 6 million bats have died from white-nose syndrome in the United States.

 

Chronic wasting disease (CWD)

 

Another emerging disease that threatens the wildlife of Wintergreen is chronic wasting disease (CWD). CWD is an infectious disease that affects free ranging and captive animals in the deer family such as elk, moose, and whitetail deer. The disease comes from a family of disease that is also responsible for mad cow disease. It is caused by abnormal proteins called prions. It passes though these herd animals via saliva, feces, urine or water/soil contaminated by prions. This disease is always fatal and causes a spongy deterioration of the brains resulting in emaciation, abnormal behavior and death. First identified in Colorado in 1960, it was found in West Virginia in 2005 and Virginia in 2009. It has now been found in five counties in Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley and the Piedmont.

One of the most unique diseases to make its way to the shores of the commonwealth is West Nile encephalitis. This mosquito borne disease caused by the West Nile virus has greatly reduced bird populations in many parts of the United States. Birds such as the American crow, robins, bluebirds, titmouse and chickadees have all shown steep declines in particular areas. New York City was the site of the initial outbreak that killed many birds and zoo animals, and it continues to kill many birds each year. While this virus has earned its bad reputation, the West Nile encephalitis is not expected to threaten any species in Virginia.

 

Canine distemper virus (CDV)

 

A disease that affects “man’s best friend” is canine distemper virus (CDV). This contagious virus is transmitted via close contact via secretions or via inhaled respiratory droplets. This disease affects domestic dogs, wolves, coyotes and fox. It also attacks raccoons and mink and is the cause of the black-footed ferret population crash in the western portions of the US. Wildlife that contract the disease have a very high mortality rate but a vaccine given to domestic dogs offers long lasting immunity. Outbreaks in Virginia are centered around shelters and animal hospitals along with outbreaks among a variety of wildlife populations.

One of the scariest wildlife diseases that afflicts the animal kingdom is the avian influenza. This viral disease is caused by various strains of influenza that can be deemed low pathogenic or highly pathogenic. It is most commonly found in waterfowl and shorebirds, but on occasion it becomes deadly for domesticated species such as turkey and chickens. In 2002, the Shenandoah Valley saw an outbreak of avian flu that affected 197 farms and resulted in the culling of 4.7 million birds. Birds can carry a variety of viruses that do not cause signs of illness. A few avian influenza viruses are known to be transferable to humans.

The struggle is real in any pandemic, whether in humans or in animals. Thanks to scientific application and proper management, each species affected has a fighting chance to overcome the current affliction. Keep a good eye on your local wildlife populations and call The Nature Foundation with any questions about the health of your wildlife.

Wooing in the Winter

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!


While the term “dead of winter” sounds appropriate right about now, nature is anything but dead. While many animals sleep the winter away, some of our favorite Wintergreen animals are about to get very busy. Many species of wildlife see the beginning of the new year as prime time to find a mate and begin the process of producing the next generation. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist details the many wildlife species that use the cold winter months as their mating season.

The noisiest of winter mating culprits is the great horned owl. Hooting season begins in December and will continue through the mating period. Since great horned owls are monogamous these calls are usually duetting, where the female gives a 6-7 note call and the male answers with a 5-note call. Younger owls will use this period to hoot in search of a mate. The mating season begins early for most owl species due to their large size. In order to grow large enough to fly and learn to hunt when prey is abundant, the process begins early. Great horned owls generally usurp nests from other large birds such as hawks, herons or eagles and rarely add to its size or quality. Generally, 1-4 eggs are laid and are incubated for 25-36 days before hatching.

 

 

Coyotes are another animal that picks up the activity level as the weather gets worse. Coyotes are also monogamous and stay together in breeding pairs for several years so these canines are not scouring the landscape in search of a mate. Primarily only the dominant pair will breed during the mating season which begins in late December and extends to early March. Pups are born by mid-April and generally average 4-6 per litter.

 

 

Winter is also the time for stinky love. Skunks begin the breeding season near the most romantic of holidays, Valentines Day. The process is not for those with sensitive noses. Males spray each other in the fight for love and females are not afraid to spray males who they don’t want to mate with. This is the time of year many homeowners are aware of the presence of skunks due to the noises and the spray. Skunk litters range from 4-6 babies that arrive in May-June.

 

 

The oddest of winter breeders at Wintergreen is undoubtably the opossum. The opossum is the only marsupial in Virginia and has quite a unique breeding season. The time for mating begins in December and can continue for several months. The female is a spontaneous ovulator and is in estrus for up to 36 hours. 11-13 days after mating a litter averaging 8-9 infant opossum are born. This is the shortest gestation of any mammal in Virginia. The newborns weigh approximately .13 grams at birth. The tiny infants must make the long difficult journey from the birth canal to the pouch, latch on to a teat and continue developing. The young stay in the pouch for 2.5 months and open their eyes between 55-70 days. The maturing opossum will be left on their own at 4-5 months at approximately 7-9 inches in length. Despite this long process, Virginia opossum can have multiple litters every year.

The list of species increasing their winter activity in Virginia is quite extensive. Add in the bald eagle, raven, beaver, river otter and mink to the list of winter breeders and the outdoor enthusiast at Wintergreen has plenty to watch for in the “dead of winter”.

The Evergreens of Wintergreen

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 winter belongs to the evergreens. The deciduous trees have shed their greenery and our environment is a duller place for it. The saving grace of color are the evergreens dispersed throughout our landscape. Whether we hike by a solitary white pine or bypass a thicket of red cedar, evergreens offer a much-needed visual respite in the long winter. While the Blue Ridge offers amazing diversity of deciduous trees, the evergreen options are much fewer and easier to learn. This Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the differences of the evergreens strewn through our wonderful Wintergreen.

This evergreen tour begins at our highest elevations and works its way to the valley floor. The most stately of our pine trees at Wintergreen is the eastern white pine. This tree is the largest pine in our upper elevations and can exceed 100ft in height. Often rising above the deciduous canopy as a solitary tree, the attentive hiker can see young trees growing throughout the understory dispersed 200 to 700 feet from the solitary adult pine. It is easily identified since it is the only pine with 5 needles per bundle and the branches grow in a “wagon wheel” formation around the trunk of the tree.

 

Eastern white pine

 

The next species to search for amongst our high elevations is the pitch pine. This beautiful conifer can be found from our rocky ridgelines down to our low elevation wetlands but is most commonly found higher on the mountain. It is identified by its red-brown, thick, blocky bark and its three needle bundles. This tree has a variable form ranging from tall and straight in rich soils to short and poorly formed on poor soils.

 

Pitchpine

 

My favorite of all mountain evergreens is the table mountain pine. This tree belongs to the gnarliest of terrains at Wintergreen and flourishes amongst disturbance, heat and light. It is identified by a couple key features. The first is the two twisted, stout needle bundle and the second is the heavily spiked pine cones. One hasty grab of this pine cone and the hiker will always have a memory from the encounter with a table mountain pine. Another interesting fact is the cones are serotinous, meaning they require heat (usually fire) to melt the resin allowing it to open and disperse seeds. Thus, these trees are usually found on dry, rocky ridges prone to fires from lightning strikes.

 

Table mountain pine

 

The eastern red cedar is my favorite evergreen species found in the lower elevations at Wintergreen. This member of the juniper family thrives in abandoned fields and is an early successional forest species. This species is identified by its fibrous bark, dark green-blue needle-like leaves (which are quite prickly) and its light green to dark blue fruit on the tree from spring to fall. It acts as a wonderful wildlife attractant.

One of the most common conifers at lower elevations is the Virginia pine. This short lived, quick growing pine is another example of early succession. When fields are abandoned, which happened in Stoney Creek from when the Boy Scouts owned the land, species such as eastern red cedar and Virginia pine are adapted at filling the canopy through the grasses. Virginia pine is excellent at that role and grows into thick stands of trees. When these stands are broken up for development, they become prone to windthrow as many valley residents will attest. They are identified best by their thin orange-brown scaly bark, their three needle bundles and their scrubby appearance due to sparse canopies.

Loblolly pine is a species native to the piedmont and occasionally found growing wildly in a variety of places at Wintergreen. This key species to the commercial timber industry is planted throughout the southeastern United States. Their 6 to 9-inch needles in groups of three (usually) and tall straight growth are the best ways to identify this pine.

I have saved the beloved eastern hemlock for last. This bastion of our waterways was once abundant in all the “hollows” and ravines at Wintergreen but has mostly been overcome by the persistent hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native aphid-like insect. This evergreen is best identified by their flat, ½-inch long needles that taper to a dull point.

There are a few primary trails at Wintergreen to practice your conifer ID skills. At the overlook on Cedar Cliffs Main Trail both table mountain pine and pitch pine can be spotted close together. At the beginning of Pond Hollow Trail near Fortunes Ridge Road there are quite a few pines you can attempt to identify. The best trail for evergreen identification is the Stoney Creek Park Trail. From the main park entrance off of Stoney Creek West, you will find quite a few options in a very short period of time. Now is the time to get out on these trails and work on your evergreen identification skill set!