Bacteria Bloom

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 Shamokin Springs Nature Preserve (SSNP) is an idyllic high elevation wetland designed to highlight the diverse flora and beautiful babbling streams. Oddly enough, this pristine ecosystem is often the source of numerous complaints of water pollution each year. The cause of these complaints is the orange tinted water in the slow moving stretches of the stream. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain the phenomenon of iron-oxidizing bacteria common in springs laden with iron-rich groundwater.

 

 

The SSNP is currently experiencing a bloom of iron-oxidizing bacteria in multiple places throughout the braided stream. These blooms occur most often after heavy rains when excessive iron is leaching to the surface. When the water, air and iron meet, bacteria is in heaven. An orange oily sheen appears on the surface and fuzzy slime will grow on the rocks amongst the bacteria bloom. The iron bacteria undergo an oxidation process in order to fulfill its energy requirements. The process changes ferrous iron (Fe2+) into ferric iron (Fe3+) producing the rusty colored slime deposits in the stream water. A byproduct is the oily sheen on the surface. To test if the oily sheen you see in stream water is iron-oxidation or pollution, attempt to disturb the slick. If the oily sheen breaks apart, it is the byproduct of the bacteria bloom. If the sheen flows back into place, it is oil.

The main concern expressed by any passerby of an orange laden bacteria bloom is what is this gross anomaly doing to its environment. While quite unsightly, there is no evidence this bloom poses any threat to the aquatic life in the surrounding area. According to the EPA, this type of bacteria is not listed as a contaminant. This type of reaction has been occurring forever and has not seemed to have any impact on the water quality in the SSNP or anywhere else this reaction is witnessed.

The time is right to be getting out into the woods and watching the leaves change colors before our very eyes. A walk along the SSNP offers wonderful colors in the trees and in the stream. Use this bit of environmental knowledge to impress your hiking partner about the wonderful world of bacteria.

The Mini Migrants

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!


This past week a group of enthusiastic raptor lovers gathered to see our favorite buteos, accipiters and falcons travel south. Instead of seeing a mass migration of beautiful raptors, we were witness to a much smaller migrant zipping past, the dragonfly. Hundreds of dragonflies whizzed past our overlook as we fruitlessly panned the skies for raptors. We were witness to the epic journey of dragonflies heading to wintering grounds. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will focus on these wonderful mini migrants.

 

 

Dragonflies are of key ecological importance. The aquatic larvae and winged adults create a link between aquatic and terrestrial systems. Both larvae and adults are voracious predators. An adult can consume 15% of its body weight in prey each day including pests such as mosquitos and biting flies. They are also key food sources for fish and birds, including being an important food source for migrating raptors. Dragonflies are also incredible fliers. They are able to hover, dive, fly backwards or upside down and reach speeds of up to 30mph. Each of the four wings acts independently so if a wing is lost, dragonflies can carry on.

 

 

Each fall, these three-inch ariel speedsters head from points north into Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico regions. Wintergreen and the surrounding Blue Ridge is a funnel point for these mini migrants and late September is the best time to observe this phenomenon. The dragonfly we get to see whiz past us most is the common green darner. Not many specifics are known about what starts this mass migration but temperature and day length are likely candidates. As the approach of killing frost gets closer, the swarms grow in number. While mostly solitary travelers, dragonfly migrants have been known to swarm in large enough number to be picked up by radar as they were in the fall of 2019.

This epic mass movement from north to south and back again is not accomplished by one generation but instead three generations of dragonfly participate in this yearly cycle. In early spring, the first-generation transitions from larvae overwintering in sheltered southern ponds or wetlands into adult dragonfly and begin the journey north. Here the dragonflies lay eggs and die. The next generation hatches, goes through the larval stage into adult form and heads south where they once again lay eggs and die. This third generation will overwinter in the comfort of Florida, Mexico or the Caribbean until the cycle of eggs, death and birth starts again.

Scientists are still baffled how the same flight pattern is followed from generation to generation with no instruction or memory to guide them. Yet these amazing creatures find their way to appropriate locals so the cycle can be repeated year after year. Make your way to any overlook at Wintergreen to witness the 2021 dragonfly migration.

The Keystone Species

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!


No parent makes proclamations of a favorite child nor do employers make it well known who is the most important employee. Our ecosystem is not coy in playing favorites. There is one species that claims the status as “favorite” or “most important”. That species is the oak. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain why the oak is the keystone species of the Wintergreen ecosystem.

Those of us that traverse the environment at Wintergreen all have favorites. My favorite species at Wintergreen, for example, are downy serviceberry, Canada lily and chipmunks. While I love them, the health of the ecosystem is not dependent on these three species. They are dependent on oaks. The forest type of Wintergreen is Oak-Hickory. This simply means the two dominant tree species are oaks and hickory. Oaks are the species we pass most often as we hike along our trails and are the key component to ecosystem health.

 

 

The obvious source of contribution to ecosystem health is dropping from the heights at this moment, acorns. Over 100 vertebrate species rely on acorns to make it through the fall and winter months. Species such as deer, bear, gray squirrels, chipmunks, wild turkeys, crows, blue jays, raccoons, rabbits and opossum use the autumn acorn crop to prepare for the tough months ahead. Oaks are split into two types: red and white. Like wine, the red and white acorns are different from each other. White oak acorns are the preferred variety for wildlife. White oak acorns have less tannin, an astringent chemical in plants, thus a more palatable taste to wildlife. Red oak acorns tend to be higher in fat, protein and calories. White oaks germinate quickly after reaching the soil, while reds lie dormant for months. Wildlife tends to seek out white oak acorns early in the autumn and turn their focus to red oak acorns in winter and into the spring.

Whole populations ebb and flow with the production of acorns. The correlation between acorn production and fawns is very strong. Deer produce more twin and triplet fawns after bumper acorn crop years. The Nature Foundation studies the yearly acorn production. If you have ever hiked the Fortunes Ridge or Lower Shamokin Falls trails you may have noticed trees painted with white and red stripes. These markings allow us to study the yearly production of acorns for 75 white and 75 red oak trees at Wintergreen.

 

 

Oaks provide other valuable landscape benefits. A key contribution is carbon sequestration. Oaks pull carbon out of the atmosphere and lock it in plant tissue. Plants with the biggest root systems have the greatest ability to lock it in the soil and oaks have tremendous root systems. These wonderful root systems hold water in the landscape better than almost any plant. Also, their large canopy softens and slows rain thus creating a slow movement of water through the watershed. The longevity of oaks stabilizes the forest community. This enduring presence tend to make these forest communities more resilient.

Oaks have not always been the primary keystone species at Wintergreen. In the early 1900s, American chestnut shared the role with oaks. Chestnuts comprised approximately 30% of the forest in the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains. Sadly, the chestnut blight arrived and changed the ecosystem in a tremendously swift manner. Currently in the United States, 75% of oak species are listed in the “conservation concern” category. Although nothing like the immediate landscape change from the chestnut blight, oak decline is happening all over our ecosystem.

The longevity of oaks combined with slow reproductive rate make them very susceptible in a rapidly changing environment. Predisposing factors such as poor soils, advanced tree age and prolonged drought make up the first level of stress in the complex known as oak decline. The second level is inciting factors such as frost and defoliating insects which may kill the tree but usually initiate decline by depleting food reserves and causing dieback. The final level is contributing factors such as secondary insects or diseases that lead to the ultimate mortality. These final “nails in the coffin” are things like Armillaria root rot that only attack trees in a state of decline.

Our Wintergreen landscape has seen a ton of factors of various stress levels. Most of our oak population in the open space of Wintergreen is mature to overmature to begin with. The oaks in our development are mature and many have been stressed with human stressors such as driveways and houses built on the root system. Our oaks have been through years of gypsy moth attack, suffering partial defoliation year after year. Our wet weather in 2018 and 2019 is a contributing factor in death of many white oak species such as white and chestnut oaks, according to the Virginia Cooperative Extension. Adding in factors such as root rot and ambrosia beetles and you have a species in decline.

While there is not much that can be done for the oaks in the open space, you can aid in maintaining healthy oaks in your landscape. Start by not being a stressor yourself. Avoid damaging tree limbs, trunk or roots. Prune carefully damaged or disease limbs. Remove invasives vines from the tree and monitor for insect pests or fungus. If you find something out of the ordinary affecting your oak, contact me at forestmanage@tnfw.org or seek out a certified Arborist for advice.

Late Summer Stings

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!


Nothing interrupts a peaceful late summer hike more than the swelling pain of a yellow jacket sting. We have entered the time of year when everyone at Wintergreen and all of central Virginia need to pay attention while hiking or picnicking. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explain why human/yellow jacket interaction is reaching its crescendo for the year.

Through the majority of summer, worker yellow jackets are focused on building up nests and raising the next generation of queens. These colonies have a set social structure that keeps order when tasks are clearly defined. Early summer, the workers focus on gathering protein in the form of other insects to feed the growing larvae. Their focus is in growing the colony and producing queens. During this phase of the summer, yellow jackets rarely show aggression due to their focus on the tasks at hand.

 

 

By late summer the workers’ (1000-4000 per colony) role and dietary needs begin to change. The first change is in their diet. They focus much more on sugars and fats to increase the fat reserves for the queens. This sends them in search of more human forms of food. Cracking a sugary soda at a cookout and the yellow jackets are bound to show up. The next major change is in their colony roles. The role changes as they have maxed out the colony and the queens are beginning to leave the nest in search of overwintering locations. When she departs, many of the worker yellow jackets leave with her resulting in a horde of homeless, taskless stinging insects.

 

 

The sting of the yellow jacket is unique in its pain delivery. It starts as a pinch sensation and swells to a burning, itching feeling. On the Schmidt pain scale, the yellow jacket ranks at a 2.0 out of 4. It is above the honeybee and fire ant but below the paper wasp and bullet ant. You may experience swelling and redness around the sting site for hours afterwards. Yellow jacket treatments can vary. If you are allergic, call 911 and prepare to use your Epi-Pen. For the majority who are not allergic to their stings, ice application is the most straight forward approach. Keep ice applied for up to 20 minutes. The next option is to take an anti-histamine such as Benedryl, which can reduce sting symptoms. A nice easy remedy is to mix a spoonful of baking soda in water and apply it with a swab to fight the acidic nature of the venom. Vinegar applications can reduce the itching if that continues to be a problem.

Wintergreen residents need to be on guard for our marauding, homeless yellow jackets, both in the woods and at your next cookout. If you are unfortunate enough to find a nest on the trails email me at forestmanage@tnfw.org. Stay safe!

A Champion in Our Midst

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!


A quick survey of the recent Olympics shows the intense desire to be number one at something. Rarely do we get to be in the presence of someone or something that is #1 in anything. A quick jaunt down to Allen Creek Trail will grant you just such an opportunity. Today’s Nine Minute Naturalist will introduce you to the number #1 most poisonous plant in North America, the water hemlock.

To be regarded as the most poisonous plant in an entire hemisphere is quite an achievement. This member of the carrot family produces cicutoxin which can cause delirium, nausea, convulsions, seizures and vomiting, often leading to death. All parts of this plant are poisonous but the roots contain the highest concentrations. Ingestion can lead to death in 15 minutes to 8 hours. The poison is so toxic that Native Americans are said to have used water hemlock to poison the tips of spears and arrows. This plant is not one to be handled.

 

 

The key to avoiding the deadliest plant in North America is through proper identification. Water hemlock grows from 2-7 feet in height and has distinct umbrella-like (umbels) white flowers that grow up to 6 inches wide. They will be in flower from July to September at Wintergreen. They have alternate twice or three times compound leaves and a distinctive stem that is tinged with purple. This native plant likes its “feet” wet and can be found in creeks, ditches, ponds, and swamps throughout Virginia.

 

 

Unfortunately, there are many look-alike plants throughout Virginia. The carrot family has a bunch of late summer flowering plants that can pose problems in identification. Parsnip, Queen Anne’s lace and water hemlock are all members of the carrot family that bloom at similar times. Queen Anne’s lace can be separated from water hemlock via location. Queen Anne’s lace grows in drier locals and prefers full sun while water hemlock prefers wetland soils and the shade. Parsnip has only singular compound leaves as opposed to twice or three times compound like water hemlock. Both look-alikes also lack the purple tinged stem of the water hemlock. It is also similar to poison hemlock made famous by the death of Socrates. The non-native poison hemlock flowers earlier in the summer and prefers drier soil types than water hemlock.

Now that you know more about the #1 deadliest plant in North America, it is time to get a close hand look for yourself. Allen Creek Nature Preserve is an excellent opportunity to get a glimpse of this species. It can be seen on both sides of the first bridge you cross on the right side as well as next to the final bridge you cross on the loop across the powerlines. Be sure to look but don’t touch!

The Misery of Mange

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 fascinating that the greatest threats to health and welfare come in the smallest packages. The other day amongst a group of kids the question arose of the deadliest animal on earth. My know-it-all son declared that the mosquito was the greatest killer and he was correct. While the mosquito is quite a pain, the current scourge of the wildlife population at Wintergreen is caused by the tiny mite. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will go into depth on the mange currently afflicting our wildlife.

Wintergreen is a wildlife paradise. From Stoney Creek to the top of Devils Knob, a variety of optimal habitats allow for population such as deer, bear, fox, coyote, bobcat and rabbits to thrive. Increased populations also bring increased problems. Too many deer mean more car accidents. Too many foxes mean chicken owners had better beware. An overpopulation of bear brings about house and car break-ins. The problem of mange is a whole different “beast” that can affect a whole host of mammals including humans.

Mange is a highly contagious skin disease caused by mites burrowing into the outer layer of skin in a wild or domestic animal. These microscopic troublemakers form tunnels in the animal’s skin and lay eggs. After three days the eggs hatch and larvae move in the tunnels or to the surface of the infected skin. The larvae turn into nymph which turn into adults and the process goes into repeat mode. Mites are transferred to new hosts when an affected animal contacts another animal. Under perfect conditions, mites can fall from the skin and survive in the environment for a bit, infecting animals who contact this contaminated area.

Identifying infected animals is not a complicated process. The mange causes intense itchiness, hair thinning and loss, thickened skin, and scabbing. The behavior of animals tends to be altered, exhibiting a lack of concern of their surroundings thus increasing the likelihood human interaction. Severely affected bears are visibly emaciated and lethargic. To get a confirmed diagnosis, identifying mites via microscope is required.

 

 

The most visible and disturbing mange problem at Wintergreen at the moment is within the bear population. Multiple bears have been seen to be exhibiting mange symptoms. Mange in bears has seen a dramatic increase from the 1990s to the present. The sightings have sped up rapidly over the past few years with an over 300% increase over the past three years. Although the cause of the sudden rise is unknown, the bear population rise must play a part in the spread. Without great means to survey the black bear population, indicators of population numbers can clearly be seen in the rise of black bears harvested each year. Despite the continued decline in bear hunters, the record for harvests was set in 2019/20 and second all time is 2020/21. As bear populations rise so do interactions among bears. On a trail camera on Crawfords Knob, four distinct bears visited within a five-day period, one bear showing mange symptoms.

It is easy to see how mange spreads through a normally isolated species. An obvious spreading opportunity is the breeding season. Bears mate in June and July. One dominant male can breed with a host of female bears acting as a spreading agent. Another concentration point is the resort itself. Bears living far from civilization are faced with somewhat evenly spread food sources. Bears living near our developed community have concentrated food sources such as dumpsters, trash cans, etc. This concentration may be another reason we are seeing mange spread through bears at Wintergreen.

 

Image: Virginia DWR

 

The problem begs for a solution. Mange can be treated by administering medication on an individual basis based on body weight and other factors. Severely affected animals may die despite treatment due to a deteriorated body condition beyond recovery. Both the Wildlife Center of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) have successfully treated bears and released them in good health. Sadly, the treatment doesn’t cause immunity. Bears tracked down later by DWR via radio collars were exhibiting mange a year later. Having to individually medicate bears and the legality of leaving food out for bears, removes the ability to treat bears in the wild. There is research being done on a one-time treatment that can be applied in the field. This will alleviate the stress and difficulty of capture, transport and treatment at a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Mange is not only a wildlife problem but a domestic animal/human problem. Direct contact with an infected animal can pass the mites onto your animal or yourself. Human infections result in a skin rash that usually resolves without treatment. It may require treatment in children and immune compromised individuals. A pet with mange is best managed through treatment, although a healthy animal can survive mange. Dogs tend to show symptoms of intense itching and hair loss. If these symptoms arise, contact your veterinarian for the best management of this infection.

This problem is not going away soon and is particularly sad to watch unfold in our bear population. The infection running rampant has the attention of the major players dealing with wildlife in Virginia such as DWR and The Wildlife Center of Virginia. Feel free to pass on any sightings of mange infected animals to forestmanage@tnfw.org.

The Poison Plants

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 forest at Wintergreen has entered the green “jungle” phase of the year where each plant is packed tightly together fighting for dominance. Once we hit this phase, differentiating between one green plant and another is quite difficult at a quick glance as you hike down the trails. Some plants such as poison ivy deliver consequences if you fail to identify it. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will cover the basics in identifying poison ivy, oak and sumac and how to treat yourself in the field if you make contact.

 

Poison Ivy

 

There are three species of poisonous plants to be attentive to as you walk the woods in Virginia. The primary plant you need to learn is poison ivy. As the old saying goes, “leaves of three, let it be”, poison ivy has a leaf with three leaflets which can be ovate or irregularly toothed. It usually appears vinelike with obvious hairs on the mature vines but can be in bush form. It will fruit in greenish white clusters in late summer persisting into winter.

 

Poison Oak

 

Poison oak is the other plant that shares similarities with poison ivy. It has a leaf with three leaflets but the leaves are shaped similar to a white oak instead of the ovate or toothed leaf of poison ivy. Another significant difference between the species is that poison oak is erect and bush-like, usually 2-4 feet tall. It has greenish white fruit clusters similar to poison ivy but fruits in the spring as opposed to late summer.

 

Poison Sumac

 

Poison sumac differs greatly from the other poison species located in Virginia. It is a small woody shrub up to 15 feet. The leaves are compound with 7-13 ovate leaflets. The fruit is small white drupes that hang in clusters and emerge in late summer. The bark is smooth splotchy gray bark with horizontal lenticels. Broken or cut stems will ooze a dark colored sap.

The distribution of these species across the state also aids in identification. Far and away the most common of the three at Wintergreen will be poison ivy. It is found at all elevations, aspects and soil types. Poison oak can be found at Wintergreen but is rare and not in our upper elevations. Poison sumac is very rare in the state of Virginia and mostly documented in the swamps on the coastal portions of the state. There are no documented observances of poison sumac at Wintergreen.

Poison from these three plants come from oily sap called urushiol. The reaction to this toxin is a form of contact dermatitis. Sensitivity to this irritant can fluctuate over time, but everyone will have some reaction varying from very mild to red, itchy rash that requires medical care. This reaction comes from direct contact. Oils spread via clothing, tools, etc. or from inhalation when poison ivy is accidentally burned. Rashes may take longer to occur in particular areas of the body such as feet, which feature thick skin or wrists, which have a thinner layer of skin.

 

Jewelweed

 

Treatment of the rashes are easy and well documented when you have the luxury of medical professionals, previous experience or internet searches, but it is sometimes imperative to treat the contact site in the field. Nature has provided some natural remedies. Jewelweed is the best natural deterrent readily available. Jewelweed can be found at most moist shady areas of Wintergreen. Crush the stalk into a wet paste and apply to the contact areas. Allow the applied jewelweed to sit on the skin for a couple minutes. Another readily found remedy is the common invasive plantain. Turning this leaf into a paste-like substance and applied to the skin can deter the affects of the urushiol. Another more mechanical method I use is finding a nearby water source and scouring the contact site with small river rocks and debris. This scouring tends to remove all oils from the skin and prevent any sort of rash. 

Fear not the poison plants of Wintergreen but know how to identify plants in our green “jungle”. Quick mitigation of potential contact with these plants can certainly save you weeks of itchy painful rashes.

Snakes With Similarities

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 watched a 3-foot black ratsnake slither across my back porch and through the branches of a nearby rhododendron, I am reminded that snake season is definitely upon us. Calls are coming in more frequently and sightings are on the rise, so now is the time to learn to tell the difference between snakes that look similar. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will examine the differences between the snakes that homeowners at Wintergreen find difficult to differentiate.

 

 

The most common snake you will see throughout the Wintergreen environment is the eastern ratsnake, otherwise known as the black ratsnake. This is the most commonly seen snake in Virginia as well as the largest snake in the commonwealth reaching lengths of 80 inches. The eastern ratsnake has a very similar look-a-like in the northern black racer. Identification of the two species starts at a distance. While both adults are predominantly black, the ratsnake tends to be a bit glossier while the racer will be a bit more matte. The head shape is also different enough that you can notice from a safe difference. The ratsnake will quickly narrow by the neck but the jaws will flare a bit wider than the rest of the head. The racer will have a head similar in width to the rest of the body. There are a couple more clues that may require a bit of close-up examination. The scales of the ratsnake have ridges giving it a textured, rough feel. The racer has smooth scales. Another technique to differentiate these species is their underbelly color. The eastern ratsnake underbelly starts white near the jaw and turns to a white and black checkered pattern. The northern racer has a cream-colored underbelly the entire length of their underside.

 

 

Another pair of snakes that cause quite a bit of confusion are the common garter snake and eastern ribbon snake. The first impression you need when deciding between a garter snake and a ribbon snake is the thickness of the body. Both snakes average 18-26” in length but the garter snake is noticeably thicker than the slender ribbon snake. When analyzing the body of the snake in question, consider the length of the tail as well. The ribbon snake has a tail that is over 1/3 its body length while the garter snakes’ tail is considerably shorter. Next, analyze the head. The ribbon snake has a head roughly the width of the body while the garter snake has a head bigger than its body width. Another aspect of the head helps in identification as well. The ribbon snake will have a white spot in front of their eye while the garter snake will not. Both species have yellow stripes down the body but differ slightly. The ribbon snake will have a cleaner pattern without markings between stripes like the garter snake can have.

The eastern copperhead has a host of species that can cause confusion in the identification process. The best way to identify copperheads are the dark-colored hourglass crossbands that are present from birth. A second surefire way to determine if you are in the presence of a venomous snake is the vertical pupil. All venomous snakes in Virginia have vertical pupils and are a quick giveaway. The name copperhead is an apt tool to use in identification as well. The head tends to be a coppery-brown with a body that is tan to brown with darker chestnut crossbands.

 

 

The snake most commonly confused with copperheads is the juvenile black ratsnake. A juvenile black ratsnake looks very dissimilar to the black adult version. It begins life with a pattern of gray or brown blotches on a gray background. The main difference between a copperhead and juvenile black ratsnake is that the blotches on the ratsnake do not extend to the sides while the vast majority of the copperhead hourglass crossbands do connect.

Another common Wintergreen snake that gets confused with the copperhead is the northern watersnake. Both species of snakes can be found in similar environments chasing amphibians while the watersnake will be frequently found in the actual water. The primary difference can be found in the shape of the patterns. Copperheads have an hourglass that is wide on the sides and narrow along the spine of the snake. The northern watersnake is going to have a pattern that is widest along the spine and narrow along the sides.

Almost everyone has a strong opinion of snakes one way or another. For those that fall in the “hate” camp, knowing how to identify the snake species frequently found at Wintergreen is the key to being a bit more comfortable around our slithering friends. The next time you come across a species you are unsure of, take a few minutes to correctly identify it.

A Weed or a Wonder

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!


Much to the chagrin of my wife and my neighbors, I believe in biodiversity even down to the backyard vegetation. My lawn consists of a bit of grass, much clover and an abundance of dandelion. Dandelions are the bane of so many grass enthusiasts, but I contend they are misunderstood components of our landscapes. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will explore the complexity and uniqueness that is the hated dandelion.

Allow me to begin this defense of the dandelion by acknowledging this species is a non-native. My personal stance on non-native plants consists of two categories. The species that displace our native species (stilt grass, garlic mustard) and those that fill niches created by the disturbance of man-made landscapes such as yards. Dandelions fit into the later category. It needs full sun and generally only becomes widespread in disturbed sites featuring a host of non-native species such as yards.

 

 

My soft spot for the dandelion is based around its status as a super food. I am a big fan of plants that can serve multiple purposes and dandelion offers both a splash of yellow flowers and nutrients galore. Dandelions rank as one of the most nutritionally dense greens you can eat. It blows kale and spinach out of the water from a nutritional standpoint and yet it grows freely in most lawns around the world. One cup of dandelion greens contains twice as much iron as spinach. It is super rich in vitamin A, B2, C and K.

The way to eat greens is simple. The first option is to harvest the leaves and eat them raw in a mixed salad. Be sure to harvest young leaves and mix with other greens due to bitterness. The second way is to harvest greens and sauté them with olive oil and garlic. When sauteed, the greens lose their bitterness. These sautéed greens can be combined nicely with pasta.

The flowers and roots are also edible and wonderfully nutritious. Flowers can be harvested and used as salad toppings or in fritter form. Make your favorite flour-based batter and cook in hot oil. Add a bit of honey and you have a nutritious snack. The roots of dandelion are the most labor-intensive portion to harvest but offer a great health benefit. The main use of dandelion roots is in tea or coffee. Harvest the root system and clean thoroughly. Chop the roots and dry in a dehydrator or the oven. Then roast in the oven until brown. Put roots and water in a pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 20 minutes, strain and serve. Add honey to decrease the bitterness. Dandelion root extract has been used to fight certain types of cancer.

 

 

Dandelions have been a traditional medicinal plant for a variety of people groups. Chinese used the plant to treat stomach and breast issues as well as appendicitis. In Europe, it has been used for fever, boils, eye problems, diabetes, and diarrhea. Modern scientific studies have focused on its ability to normalize blood sugar and fight inflammation.

Please be thoughtful before harvesting any plant. First, make sure when you pick a dandelion or any other edible plant that it is not in an area treated with herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Also, make sure to avoid picking dandelions along roadsides. Be sure you wash off any thing you pick as a precaution.

To many it is sacrilege to be fond of a non-native plant. To others it is an abomination to not have a perfect, monocultured front lawn. To me, dandelions are an afterthought that can do marvelous things for our health all the while providing wonderful color to our landscape. I encourage you to pick up the nearest dandelion puff ball and spread the seeds of this wonder plant.

A Native Nuisance

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!


Wintergreen is laden with non-native species producing havoc to our ecosystem. With so many intrusions from distant lands, it is surprising when we find our landscape nuisances to be native to our eastern forests. The native eastern tent caterpillar is currently intruding upon our landscape and forest trees in an unsightly manner. This Nine Minute Naturalist will delve into the biology and methods of dealing with this native nuisance, the eastern tent caterpillar.

 

 

The eastern tent caterpillar is best identified by the creamy white stripe running down the center of the back bordered by yellowish-brown stripes on either side of the stripe. The back is also covered with yellow-brown hairs and has an alternating pattern of blue and black spots along each side. The adult moth has a reddish-brown stout body with two pale stripes on each front wing. They can be identified from a distance by their distinct nest. Their white silken nest is built into the crotch of branches and can be seen from quite the distance. It will gradually increase in size until it measures a foot in length. The caterpillars use this as home base, venturing forth as the day warms to feed on foliage. They will return to home base by nightfall. They are relatively picky about which trees they will nest in and feed on. The primary candidates that host the eastern tent caterpillars are black cherry, apple, hawthorn, chokecherry, pear, plum and most other fruit trees in our region.

 

 

The life history of the eastern tent caterpillar dictates how we approach control. Adults lay eggs in ring-like circles that encircle small twigs. The egg masses look varnished and are under an inch long. Eggs will hatch about the time the host leaves begin to open in the spring. The feeding and nest making begin at once starting small and enlarging as the caterpillar grows. In 4-6 weeks, they reach maturity, measuring about 2-2.5 inches. At this time, we will find the caterpillars wandering in search of a place to build their whitish-colored cocoon. They will place them on tree trunks, buildings and fences. The adult moths emerge in late June/early July. Each adult will lay one egg mass containing several hundred eggs around the stem of a twig concluding their life cycle for the year.

Although defoliation and webbing are unsightly, eastern tent caterpillars rarely kill a tree, although heavy infestations will cause a lack of growth and increased stress for that year. Being native to an ecosystem usually indicates a coexistence with a host. Native caterpillars such as eastern tent caterpillars and fall webworm may cause stress but rarely cause death in the host species they depend on for next year’s lifecycle. The other bonus when dealing with native species is they have native predators accustomed to feeding on the caterpillars, thus acting as a population control mechanism. Birds are the primary predator for these caterpillars. Species such as robin, blue jays and cardinals, as well as 50 other bird species, serve as primary control agents.

The best human intervention is mechanical control. Scrapping egg masses on low branches before spring will quickly rid the tree of hundreds of potential defoliators. Once hatched, destroying the nests will open them up to death by predators or cold weather. Nests should be destroyed in early morning hours when all the caterpillars are present. Branches can also be pruned off but that also can decrease growth and cause stress. The last option should be chemical application. There are numerous chemical insecticides that are effective against the caterpillars. Chemical control is most effective when the caterpillars and nests are little. Application of residual insecticides is most effective during the day when they are actively feeding. If using chemicals on a fruit bearing tree, make sure the chemical is specifically marked for fruit trees. Once the caterpillar is wandering from the nest looking to pupate, chemical application is ineffective.

While our instinct is to eliminate anything bothering our landscape trees, native species are participating in an ecosystem dependent on their existence. The Wintergreen environment is accustomed to the presence of tent caterpillars and rarely needs the assistance of man to deal with that particular pest. Use prudence and a measured response when dealing with this native species.