Forest Bathing in RVA

September 21, 2022 · 3 minute read
Forest Bathing in RVA

Have you ever heard of Forest Bathing? When I first heard people talking about this, I assumed it might have to do with taking a bath in the woods.

Back in 2019 I was at an arborist tree conference at Virginia Tech, where there was a presentation “Joy of Forest Bathing / Adaptation of Japanese Shinrin-Yoku by Melanie Choukas-Bradley”. Maybe 10 years earlier, I’m pretty sure I would have ignored this talk and gone to another class. But since I had been on a journey to improve my health, interested in foraging for wild foods, and questioning everything that I thought was normal, I knew I had to be at this talk with an open mind. The session was a guided outdoor walk, and I learned that Forest Bathing is basically encouragement to spend time outdoors – to sit or walk slowly, or even lie down, to see, smell, and touch the trees, forest, and soil around you. Melanie taught us a neat technique – by cupping our hands around our ears and putting our backs towards a creek or running water, the sounds are amplified into our ears. You hear sounds you otherwise would not notice!

So do you want to try Forest Bathing, but aren’t sure where to go? Ideally, pick a forest with little to no interference from external noises. Since most of you reading this may be in Richmond, you would have to drive a few hours out of town – and even then it will be hard to escape cars and other modern noises. I personally feel if I were to drive that far, I’d want to explore a good distance by hiking or biking. In all likelihood, you will be more willing to try this if it’s convenient.

Here are some suggestions on how to Forest Bathe in town:

  • find a local patch of undisturbed woods or ground cover close to your house – this could be in your backyard
  • ignore your phone – ensure it doesn’t make any noises and is out of sight
  • go to a plant, tree, or patch of woods that seems interesting
  • take off your shoes and feel the soil and leaves – try to imagine what is below the soil and what is living down there
  • listen to the leaves moving in the wind or under your feet. Or simply watch them move even if they aren’t making any sounds
  • listen to all the different sounds you can hear, like insects and birds
  • touch the different barks on trees, touch the soil, rocks, sticks, or anything you can get your hands on
  • smell the leaves, branches, bark, dead limbs, soil, or anything you can smell in the air

Here in Richmond, with all of the traffic and lawn machine noises, I try focusing on smells, sights, and touch, and turn off any other sounds that I can.

What is the goal while Forest Bathing?

  • try to connect with the soil, plants, animals, insects, and environment individually, and also as a group
  • have no agenda or expectations; just stop to see what happens

What are the benefits?

There are many that have been studied and published. Look this up and find there are an array of articles, books and podcasts on Forest Bathing.

  • reduces stress and anxiety, strengthens immunity, lifts mood, improves sleep, improves blood pressure, and it’s meditative
  • this might help adults and kids with Nature Deficit Disorder

Lastly, a piece of advice from Reilly Meng, whom I have had the good fortune of practicing yoga with weekly: “It’s very difficult for humans to engage in activities for the sake of the activity itself, without aiming at productivity, accomplishment or results. Like with any meditation, it isn’t until one abandons striving and looking for results that the benefits will occur.”

Trees and their relationship with fungal networks; are their relationships symbiotic or competition?

August 9, 2022 · 2 minute read
Trees and their relationship with fungal networks; are their relationships symbiotic or competition?

I just recently listened to the book “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard. I believe Dr. Simard would say it’s more about relationships and less about competition.  Even trees of different species use the living fungal network to connect and help each other. I can’t remember if she coined the term or used it in the book, but some people call it the “Wood Wide Web.” 

What you will learn from this book:

  • Trees need mycorrhizal networks to survive.
  • Trees send messages, warnings, and defense chemicals to neighboring trees. 
  • Mycorrhiza assist trees with water and nutrient uptake.
  • Trees share carbon between species through mycorrhizal fungus.
  • Plant diversity is key for a tree to survive.
  • When preserving trees, it is more important to preserve a larger area with all of the understory and soil versus leaving a single tree.
  • Dr. Simard’s reference to the “mother tree” describes how larger trees are linked to vast surrounding areas, and communicate across a forest providing protection to their offspring.

Figure showing links among trees

 

While listening to “Finding the Mother Tree” I began questioning: 

  • If trees need diversity, should we be surprised when we ask them to survive in a field of a monocrop, like grass?
  • If we treat a lawn with fungicides, will it not damage or destroy the fungal network our trees need to survive?
  • If we dig a trench across a lawn, do we sever the fungal connections? If so, how long does it take to reconnect?
  • Do some root rots that are present in the soil only cause issues with our trees when something is out of balance?  For example, Armillaria root rot, phytophthora root rot, or hypoxylon canker; Are they ever present in the air and our soils and only attack when we have damaged our soils?

Why do I bring this up and why did I ask a lot of questions without definitive answers?  It seems a similar story is being conveyed in other books I have recently read, including  The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohllenben. In these books, the authors discuss relationships among trees and their surroundings that appear to be fundamental in determining their long-term health, as well as the health of the other organisms in the ecosystem.

 

Wood Wide Web image from Jules Bartl animation video: http://www.julesbartl.com/#/bbc-treestalk/
Model showing fungal network with tree groups by Kevin J. Beiler, Daniel M. Durall, Suzanne W. Simard, Sheri A. Maxwell, &
Annette M. Kretzer: https://www.for.gov.bc.ca/hfd/library/fia/2009/FSP_Y093314b.pdf

Insect Art

June 30, 2022 · 1 minute read
Insect Art

This week’s advice is more about observations and less about advice. When I look at trees or even wooden furniture I’m always amazed and look for faces or patterns.

This week I started to think about a few of the cool things I have seen in trees often caused by insects but also by mushrooms.

When I’m in my car I almost always miss some of the coolest things in nature. When I’m riding my bike or running I usually miss the details, but when I slow down and walk or just stop in the woods then I start to see some of the hidden beauty and art.

Below are insect galleries in elm wood from the elm bark beetle:

Below are galleries from Southern Pine Beetle:

The below picture is the twig girdler insect that chews a circular notch in the tree branch after she inserts her eggs in the stem. The stem then dies and when the wind blows the branch breaks and falls to the ground, where the larva overwinters and eventually will hatch:

Below if you look closely you might find a cordyceps mushroom growing out of the body of an ant. The story of how this happens is amazing and you must look it up. But basically, the mushroom takes over the ant, guides the ant to bite into the limb, and then the mushroom takes over the ant’s body. Zombie Ants:

Bees are just amazing in every way! Below, the patterns of the bald-faced hornet nest always amaze me…but if you know this bee, it also scares me too.

My advice is to slow down, maybe get on your hands and knees sometimes, and see what you can find in the woods or your own backyard.

Why did I choose a career as an Arborist? 

May 19, 2022 · 2 minute read
Why did I choose a career as an Arborist? 

First, let’s start with what is an arborist? There are a few definitions out there from Tree Surgeon to the International Society of Arboriculture’s definition of “A professional who possesses the technical competence gained through experience and related training to provide for or supervise the management of trees and other woody plants in residential, commercial, and public landscapes”. 

But the definition I remember hearing the most, although I can’t recall its source, and what has stuck in my mind over the years is “The art and science of caring for trees”. I strongly believe that what we do daily in the trees whether it is pruning or removal is an art.

When I first realized I wanted to learn more about trees I signed up for an arboriculture class at J Sargent Reynolds for fun. All the information was new to me because a lot of what I learned at VA Tech was about Forestry and Wildlife Management. While taking this course I learned about becoming a Certified Arborist and started to see myself working in some capacity in the field of arboriculture. 

I found a job and quickly began learning all that I could about Arboriculture and trees. After a short while, I knew I had found my career path. I studied for the Arborist Certification Test and became a Certified Arborist. I assumed that my knowledge and passing the test were the highlights of my career. What I soon realized is that it was only the beginning and it was the spark that made me ask questions and look deeper into the trees I would climb or see every day. 

In addition to obtaining your certification, there is a continuing education part that needs to be documented so you can keep your certification. 

But what is very cool about this field is it is not all about trees. There are so many aspects of the environment I have learned over the past 24 years and much more that I still need to learn. I have learned about building construction, architecture, design, lawn care, insects, diseases, soil microbes, hydrology, mushrooms, and many other disciplines that affect and work with and sometimes against trees. 

There are a multitude of other certifications an Arborist or a business involved in arboriculture may obtain, like Board Master Arborist, Certified Tree Worker, Municipal Specialist, Utility Arborist Specialist, Tree Risk Assessor Qualification, Certified Treecare Safety Professional, TCIA Accredited Company, etc. 

Next time you see me or a Truetimber Arborist, ask them what they’ve learned lately, or better yet, tell them what you’ve learned! 

Peter Girardi

ISA Certified Arborist # MA-0657AT

Check out this great video about life as an Arborist at Truetimber.

Ever heard of a tree climbing competition?

April 14, 2022 · 2 minute read
Ever heard of a tree climbing competition?

Ever heard of a tree climbing competition? Interested in making a field trip to cheer on some of our Truetimber Climbers? This is not a logging competition with chainsaws but more about the day-to-day skills an Arborist must use or know to safely work in trees.

The Mid-Atlantic Society of Arboriculture (MAC-ISA) is having its annual Tree Climbing Championship event on Saturday, April 23rd, 2022, and Sunday the 24th in Williamsburg, VA. Parking is available at the Tavern Parking Lot off of E. Francis St.  The main event will be on Saturday. On Sunday there will be a final event called the Master’s Challenge which will take the top scoring climbers and test all their skills in a single tree to determine the overall winner. The link above will give you more information on the event.

Why should you go?

  • It’s a free event
  • Get to see some of the best climbers in the Mid-Atlantic Region
  • Get to see International Climbing Competitors
  • Get to see both Male and Female climbers
  • Recreational tree climb hosted by Riverside Outfitters from 10 AM – 2 PM on Saturday
  • Get to see a bunch of Truetimber employees 🙂

The Truetimber competitors this year will be, Sebastien Carpentier, Chloe Eakle, Andy Ellis, Justin Grabosky, Jeff Inman, Christopher Martin, and Jared Swainston. And representing Truetimber as volunteers/judges will be Mike Mather and Drew Dunavant. I will be there as a spectator this year, so if you make it down find me to say hello.

This competition will test the climbers at five different stations:

  • Work Climb:  This event tests the competitor’s ability to move about the tree using a climbing line and harness at 5 stations and being scored on completion of a station but also getting subjective points based on safety, control, style, poise, creativity at the discretion of the judges 
  • Belayed Speed Climb: This event tests the climbers on their strength and endurance to climb about 60-feet to the top of the tree as fast as they can and ring a bell. Some trees utilize limbs to assist climbers like a ladder, but other times it is a straight pull on the rope to get into the tree. 
  • Aerial Rescue: This is a timed event that tests the competitor’s ability to climb to and safely lower a climber (150lb Training Dummy/Manikin) who is unable to descend without assistance.
  • Ascent: This event used to be called the Secured Footlock Event, but over the years arborists have moved away from this technique and started utilizing other gear and equipment to ascend into the tree. Competitors are timed on setting up their equipment, timed to ring a bell about 70-feet in the tree, then timed to set up a system to descend.
  • Throwline: The Throwline Event is a timed event that tests the competitor’s ability to accurately place a throwline and/or climbing line in a tree.  There are usually 3 levels of targets like 70-feet, 50-feet, and 30-feet.  The higher the target the more points and they also get extra points for installing their ropes in the tree.

In addition to watching Truetimber employees and other climbers from Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia compete, I have been told that Riverside Outfitters will have Jocelyn, Natalie, and Noah competing too.  

See you there! -Peter

Tree and Plant Spring Observations

March 9, 2022 · 2 minute read
Tree and Plant Spring Observations

By Peter Girardi

My daughter, who is finishing her last year in college, mentioned she has been assigned to read the book “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben and journal throughout this semester on a specific tree on campus. 

I remembered I needed to read this book too, as it has been sitting next to my couch for over a year. I dug in and just finished the book last week. I love how this author explains what trees and forests are doing and how they interact with the world around them; I feel like I know a lot of this, but I now have a fresh perspective.  

A few weekends ago I went out to do some sightseeing while walking and riding in the woods, mostly to see what was new but to also check on what’s old. There was a lot going on outside and if I hadn’t slowed down I would have missed it: plants waking up. One of the thoughts I had while riding my bike was about the study of phenology that I learned back in college. You can look it up for more information, but basically phenology studies patterns that may exist between plants and other components of the natural environment and how that might correspond to insect and animal behavior. Here is a website that is all about Phenology https://usanpn.org/home. For example, I have always been told that a great time to get down to the river and fish for shade is when the downy serviceberry tree is in bloom. That’s probably why another common name for the serviceberry tree is shadblow tree. 

So here are a few things I noticed:

  • An alder tree flowering next to a stream. In the 2 pictures below you can see fresh male catkin flowers, small female cones starting to develop and old cones that have already released their seeds and are dried out and persistent on the tree.  
  • Daffodils foliage coming out of the ground and starting to flower
  • Red maple trees are flowering all over Richmond.
  • Elm tree buds that have been swollen for months are starting to flower.
  • Star magnolia and Saucer magnolia trees are starting to bloom
  • Eastern red cedar trees are starting to show their gender; brownish hue cedars are the cedars full with male cones and the cedars with a bluish hue are full with female cones. Also in the right amount of wind you will see a cloud of pollen coming off the male cedar trees.
  • Multiflora rose have started to push out new growth.
  • Fresh growth has started on honeysuckle vines.
  • Ornamental pears are starting to swell and are getting ready to open soon.
  • Coltsfoot is just starting to flower.

Maybe I will also start to observe birds, insects, other animal behaviors as well as my own behaviors, including eating habits, during this time of changing seasons. I’m sure if I were to just slow down a bit I would detect connections between the trees and the world around them and vice versa.

How to Make Your Backyard Soil Come Alive

January 26, 2022 · 2 minute read
How to Make Your Backyard Soil Come Alive

Over the past two years, I’ve gone down a lot of rabbit holes on the soil food web, living soils, mushroom mycelia, and pretty much everything else related to soils and mushrooms (including attending some non-arborist conferences).

I believe that healthy soils equal healthy plants and trees in the same way that a healthy gut equals a healthy human.

This past weekend I spent a few days at the Virginia Association for Biological Farming Conference in Roanoke listening to farmers talk about their success stories with improving soil quality to improve their gardens or orchards.  

We started the conference with a few short movies the night before, but we also watched the movie “Kiss the Ground.”  Here is a link to the Movie Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3-V1j-zMZw.  I’m not going to summarize this movie here. It can get pretty depressing. But by the end, it will leave you with hope and motivation that we can do our part to help conserve our soils.

Here are a few takeaways from the conference that I believe can improve your yard, garden and, yes, even your trees: 

  • Soils should be living, not just dirt. A variety of organisms live in the soil. These include bacteria, fungi, microarthropods, nematodes (fungal and bacterial-feeding), protozoa (amoebae, flagellates and ciliates), earthworms and insects. These organisms live on organic matter or other soil organisms and perform a number of vital processes in soil. Other organisms are involved in the transformation of inorganic molecules. Very few soil organisms are pests. 
  • The role of soil organisms in soil fertility may involve the following: 
    • helping soil to form from original parent rock material, 
    • contributing to the aggregation of soil particles, 
    • enhancing cycling of nutrients, 
    • transforming nutrients from one form to another, 
    • assisting plants to obtain nutrients from soil, 
    • degrading toxic substances in soil, 
    • causing disease in plants, 
    • minimizing disease in plants, 
    • assisting or hindering water penetration into soil. 
  • Keeping your soil covered with plants, cover crops, grass, or mulch will help keep your soil healthy and living and therefore help your tree’s roots.
    • Bare soil gets too dry, too hot and can damage or kill the microbes living in the soil.
    • Bare soil is more prone to run off and erosion
  • Plant your yard like a healthy forest with different species of trees and plants, different sizes of trees and plants and ground cover plants.
  • Don’t be afraid to start improving your yard or soils.  Just start small and the rest can happen organically.  For example:
    • Start composting at home and get the compost back into your yard and soil.
  • Mulch a larger portion of your tree’s roots
  • Convert some of your grass into a garden
  • Eliminate herbicides or pesticides around your yard and trees if possible to help protect the living microbes in the soil that are working with your trees
  • Keep your leaves around your trees and yard and use your mower to mow them into smaller pieces.
  • Support your local farmer and your local community gardens that are caring for the soil. If you don’t know of any, start at a farmers’ market near you.

Lastly, take a break, go outside to get some fresh air and sunshine!

Repurposing Tree Parts

December 22, 2021 · 2 minute read
Repurposing Tree Parts

If you want to get me excited, show me how you repurposed or recycled a tree or part of a tree. This includes cabinets or furniture used with solid wood and used on the landscape or in a house with no stain so you can see every grain in the wood.  

Here are a few examples I came up with this past weekend.

  • Leave the leaves: Utilize the leaves in your yard as a mulch bed around trees or mow the leaves with a lawn mower so the parts of the leaf fall between the blades of grass and breakdown for the soil. The leaves also serve as a habitat for many beneficial living organisms.
  • Fence made with branches:  Everytime I ride up the Cannon Creek Greenway in Richmond on my bike I am reminded of what a cool idea this is.
  • Birdhouse post: This could be a small tree being removed and leaving the trunk about five-feet tall or using a limb as a post and putting it in the ground like you would any other 4’x4′ post, then planting a feeder or house on the post (trunk).
  • Mushroom logs: Logs and even stumps can be inoculated with mushroom mycelium to grow edible mushrooms like shiitake, oyster and lion’s mane to name a few. Below are some shiitake logs at my house.
  • Wildlife piles: Search online and you’ll find many styles and techniques to create wildlife piles. My warning is that not only will bunnies and birds love these piles but so could copperhead snakes; so just be careful before throwing your hands into a pile of sticks.
  • Sitting bench: The top of the log does not need to be cut flat, but it makes a more comfortable bench.  This will take more time, skills and the right equipment.
  • Furniture:  This can take the shape of fine furniture with kiln-dried lumber or rough outdoor furniture with air dried lumber.
  • Support beams: This could be for a Treehouse, an outdoor platform or the inside of a building to help support the building. If you want to see a lot of examples of this you can look no further than the Camp Truetimber (our office below).
  • Art: Here’s an example of a project by Patrick Dougherty in the Dumbarton Oaks area in Washington D.C.  Truetimber was able to help Patrick in 2010 obtain the branches and deliver them to D.C.
  • Path/Border: This is a simple way to use fallen dead limbs or cut limbs to line a path or to create a border between mulch and lawn.
  • Create stools: The nice thing about stools around a firepit is they can usually be moved easily with two people and if the fire gets too hot you can move out further and if the fire gets too cold you can move in closer. Another use for stools could be for an outdoor classroom. Warning: If they are too tall in diameter, they’re easy to knock over and could be an issue if anyone tries to climb on them.
  • Mulch: Fresh wood chips are great for your landscape because they contain all of the tree parts which benefit the soil by adding nutrients and organic matter as they breaks down. These chips also provide the same benefits as other mulches like helping retain moisture, helping modulate soil temperature and helping suppress weeds.

10 Tree Facts That May Not Be True

November 23, 2021 · 2 minute read
10 Tree Facts That May Not Be True

As an arborist, I have been told and sometimes asked about tree facts that I’ve learned may not actually be true.  I won’t cite any references to back up my claims, but here are just a few I believe to be false.

  1. It is against the law to remove a dogwood tree in Virginia.
  • I have never seen nor can I find any evidence that this is true, yet for my entire career I have been asked this question.
Walnuts at the base of a walnut tree.
  1. Walnut trees are allelopathic and kill plants under their canopy.
  • I am not going to explain this one. Instead I offer this link to disprove this “fact” that everyone seems to think is true.
  1. When planting trees, the planting holes should be very deep.
    • Planting holes should only be as deep as the bottom of the plant container to the root flare of the tree. The root flare should be present when you are done planting. The planting hole should be wide; the plant hole should be at least 3 times the diameter of the root ball.
  1. A heavy acorn crop means we’ll have a long winter.
    • I don’t think I heard this in college, but I have heard it my entire career. The story is it’s going to be a long winter, so the trees are producing a lot of extra acorns for the wildlife. It seems to me that the crop production of acorns is more from past weather experiences on the tree.
  1. Tree roots on the surface of the lawn are a result of the tree species.
    • In my experience, the reason the roots are on the surface of the ground is because there are poor soil conditions like compaction, high water table, or lack of oxygen.
  1. Trees need to be staked after planting.
    • I have staked trees because the tree after being planted was unstable due to a heavy canopy and a small root ball, but most of the trees I have planted did not need to be staked.  As the trees move in the wind they will grow roots to help stabilize the tree. 
  1. Trees need to be fed.
    • Trees feed themselves by taking in carbon dioxide, water and sunlight and nutrients from the soil and convert it to sugars for tree growth. This process is called photosynthesis.
  1. Tree roots break sewer lines and foundations.
    • It is true that you can find tree roots in sewer lines and foundations, but it ‘s not true that this was caused by the tree’s roots. Tree roots are looking for water and nutrients and when they see an opportunity they take it. From what I’ve seen, the sewer line or foundation was already broken and the roots simply found their way in.
  1. Tree wounds or pruning cuts should be painted. 
    • This one is less common these days, but I am still asked this often. Painting a tree wound or pruning cut can actually increase decay in a tree by increasing moisture in the tree.
  1.  Tree roots are a mirror image of the tree’s canopy.
    • Tree roots are usually not much deeper than 18” deep and can spread out 3 times the height of a tree.  It was explained to me that it is like a wine glass on an upside down plate. The plate represents the roots, the stem of the wine glass is the trunk of the tree and the cup on the glass is the tree’s canopy.

Common Sense Tree Preservation

September 29, 2021 · 3 minute read
Common Sense Tree Preservation

What do you think of when you hear the words tree protection or tree preservation? I start by thinking about what makes common sense and then I start to think like an arborist.

Over the years of inspecting trees I’ve noticed a few definitions of tree preservation people might use: 

  • If the tree is still standing and still alive when the sod is put down, then the tree was preserved!
  • This was from a driveway contractor: “I’ve never killed a tree in my 20-plus years of installing driveways next to trees.” I do not think this is true.
  • “If we put down a plastic fence, spray the tree for insects, and fertilize the tree then the tree is preserved.”
  • Another preservation method might be having zero impact around the trees drip line, no trenching near the tree, no compaction near the tree and little impact on drainage flow patterns (while common sense would say this would be good protection, this is rarely the case and rarely an option)

There are a lot of variables to consider while planning and designing a project with the trees in mind.  After consulting with some of our clients over the years, many have held off on a house addition to avoid damaging or worse, removing, their tree.  

Here are some things to consider when attempting to preserve your trees:

  • Condition of the tree: Do we want to preserve a tree that is in decline or in poor condition?
  • Species: The tree might be a short lived species at the end of it’s time or it could be a tree that is very sensitive to any disturbance.
  • Size of tree: Sometimes the smaller and medium trees make more sense to preserve rather than a single large tree. Larger trees also need larger protection zones.
  • Groups of trees share a mycelium connection, which helps with preservation instead of just a single tree. 
  • Look at soil type. Wet and clay-rich soils have more issues with compaction

I like to think of tree protection as soil protection. Here is a list of things that can be done before and after construction damage to reduce stress on a tree and the soil around it:

  • If vehicles need to drive across the root zone of a tree, install a road of deep mulch, install mats or plywood or sometimes I have seen landscape fabric and stone which is to be removed after the project is completed. If you are really curious about this, there are specs and standards.
  • If an irrigation head needs to be installed near a tree, make sure the water line does not run perpendicular to the root of the tree and cuts all the roots but comes in towards the tree straight and parallel to the roots, like the spoke of a wheel.
  • If at all possible, do not change the grade of soil around the trees you would like to protect. Grade changes are common on many if not most construction projects. Either soil is removed or soil is added, and most of the time the soil removed is added to other parts of the yard.  
  • Do not have bare soil ever. Bare soil during construction (and, actually, anytime) is not good for the microbes that live in the soil. A layer of mulch, plants, cover crop, rye grass or anything similar is better than bare soil.
  • Create a physical barrier around the tree/trees you would like to protect. Wooden or chain link fences around trees to be preserved work better than plastic fences that can be moved more easily.
  • Pruning trees before construction can reduce the amount of damage from building materials, trucks and loaders hitting limbs.

When in doubt, talk to an arborist. There are techniques that can be implemented to reduce stress on the tree for future construction work to be done.

Ridealong: An RVA Mushroom Hunt

September 7, 2021 · 2 minute read
Ridealong: An RVA Mushroom Hunt

Have you ever wondered how it’s all connected? I wonder all the time! The reason I focus on mushrooms is that I’ve found mushrooms to be integral to the health of trees and soils. I’ve also discovered a beneficial purpose for some of the mushrooms that are supposedly harmful to trees. I see these “harmful” mushrooms everywhere, and yet they appear to live harmoniously with the trees instead of killing or damaging them.

Two weeks ago while riding my bike around Richmond, I noticed ringless honey mushroom, Armillaria tabescens, all over the woods. I guess technically I didn’t slow down enough to properly identify the mushroom, but this is what I believe I was seeing. If you research Armillaria you’ll find it’s a wood-rotting fungus that kills trees. I think Armillaria is everywhere in our woods and soil and only takes over stressed or dead trees, just like other diseases and insects.

Interesting Fact: An Armillaria species was measured in 1998 and determined to be the largest living organism in the world. Researchers measured the mycelium of the mushroom underground and, it was said to encompass 1,665 football fields. I am not going to discuss how they measured it so you will have to look that up if you are interested.  But if you didn’t know already, there is a network of mycelium under our feet in soil, in our yard, and in the woods.

Mycelium is basically the vegetative body of a mushroom that you rarely see and is below the ground. The small fruit body part we see above the ground (the mushroom) is the sexual reproduction part of a mushroom. The mushroom releases spores. These spores are single cells and they float around in the air and lay around on the ground, or other substrate, to reproduce and produce hyphae. When two compatible hyphae meet, they create mycelium. Mycelium spreads throughout the soil and creates symbiotic relationships with the roots of many trees and plants.  

When was the last time you went for a walk or bike ride intent on discovering mushrooms? Did you take any pictures and leave the mushroom “as is” for the next walker or biker? How about walking around your yard to see how many you can find or look for the smallest mushrooms? I personally have my radar on for mushrooms when I drive, walk, run and ride… but most of the time I seem to be too busy to slow down or stop to have a closer look.

This weekend I went out for a few long rides around Henrico, Hanover, and the City of Richmond to find Honey Mushrooms, but they were gone. I couldn’t find any to identify. I know their network of mycelium was still there but the fruiting bodies were absent. I’m sure there are some out there still, but they were not on my bike path.

While hunting for mushrooms, it’s easy to get sidetracked by all types of living organisms. The interconnectedness amongst plants, birds and insects become increasingly apparent and often times mesmerizing.

Throughout this article are pictures of mushrooms that were recently found, photographed and left for the next person or animal to enjoy.

A Day in the Life of an Arboreal Detective

May 26, 2021 · 4 minute read
A Day in the Life of an Arboreal Detective

Sometimes I feel like a detective while reading the description for my next arborist appointment. As soon as I get out of my car I start to gather clues. Most every tree or property I inspect daily are full of problems that need to be identified and hopefully solved. Here are 5 examples of what I have seen in the past two weeks…

My Pine Tree has Borers

  • I get this call a lot. My first reaction is to inspect the tree canopy to look for dieback or discoloration.  Then I examine the holes and look for frass or a pitch tube coming out of the trunk of the tree. If it were a borer or bark beetle here in Richmond, it would likely be a turpentine beetle or pine bark beetle; however, 90-95% of the time the holes are actually caused by a woodpecker, not an insect. Below top is a turpentine beetle pitch tube and below are woodpecker holes in a pine tree.
Turpentine beetle pitch tube
Woodpecker holes

My Oak Tree Has Curled Leaves 

  • A client recently called and told me that the white oak tree in her front yard had leaves that were curled and misshapen. My first thought was jumping oak leaf gall or possibly early signs of anthracnose. But when I looked harder at the tree it appeared it might be herbicide damage. She said she or her lawn crew hadn’t sprayed her lawn. I looked across the road and saw a brown agricultural field.  I asked if she remembered anyone spraying across the street. She said one month ago the farm across the street got sprayed.  She was interested in the large machine spraying chemicals so she took a picture.  I looked up the weather for the day and time she took the picture and saw that the wind was 6 mph with gusts up to 12 mph. I recommended the client to reach out to the Farm or Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to investigate to see what chemical was used to see if it could be a problem for her tree.  She had no idea that the chemical sprayed in another property or across the street could possibly travel to her property. There’s a name for that: chemical trespassing.
Curled oak tree leaves

The Leaves on my Holly Tree are Black

  • In the spring, on most holly trees I see the wonderful lime green growth that has already begun. Sometimes, as I walk closer to the tree, I can see the older leaves and branches of the tree are black. I know from experience there are a few different types of scale from insects that suck on the leaves of a holly and excrete honeydew (insect poop) everywhere.  The honeydew is sticky and high in sugar, and this attracts a fungus called sooty mold. Almost every holly tree in Richmond seems to have this ecology of insects and fungus. Trees/shrubs that are treated for the insect eventually clear up the fungus, but from my experience as soon as someone stops spraying, the insects and sooty mold come back.
Holly leaves with sooty mold

The Trunk of my Tree is Diseased and Black

  • Similar to the above, the black on the trunk of a tree is sooty mold.  But an arborist has to determine what’s causing it. Sometimes we help decide by the species of tree it is. For example, if the sooty mold is on a crepe myrtle, I’d guess aphids. Red maple I’d guess aphids or gloomy scale. And sugar maple, I’d guess woodpeckers. 
Sooty mold on a tree trunk with woodpecker holes

My Tree is Dropping Sticky Sap on my Deck

  • This is not a new one to me. I went into this recent call thinking it was probably a willow oak with lecanium scale or a crepe myrtle tree with aphids. But when I showed up to this house, I saw a white oak tree and jumping oak leaf gall all over the leaves and deck, so my first thought was it must be the jumping oak leaf gall. Then I remembered there’s no way the gall would or could cause the sap to fall from the tree. I looked closer and couldn’t see any scale large enough to ID from the ground.  I went back to my car and grabbed my tools and clipped the end of a branch from the tree. The tops of the leaves were sticky, too, and as I looked more closely, I saw the jumping oak leaf gall but also a group of aphids crawling around on the oak leaves. Was I worried about the aphids on this tree? No, what I assumed, and I am pretty sure will happen, is we’ll see beneficial insects like lady beetles moving in to attack and eat the aphids. My recommendation to the homeowner was to clean off the deck before the sooty mold starts to grow.
Lady beetle

Observations of a Contented Arborist

April 21, 2021 · 1 minute read
Observations of a Contented Arborist

Sometimes I have to remind myself to appreciate the wonderful experiences I get to enjoy as an Arborist here in Richmond, Virginia. Below are just a few of the benefits that I experience each day:

  • I get to not only see some of the most amazing trees in Richmond but also touch, smell, taste and climb them!
  • I get to see unique species of trees that are most rare in the landscape and only found on a few properties or locations.
  • I get to see some of the most amazing groups of lichens and mosses in and around trees, yet I’m still unable to correctly identify any of them, but I love to take their pictures.  Heads up to any Lichen experts interested in giving me a lesson!
  • I’ve been able to experience some of the best views of our beautiful Richmond and the James River from the trees I’ve climbed.
  • I’ve been lucky enough to catch glimpses of flying squirrels, migratory bird nests, scared opossums and racoons in the same tree with me.
  • I get to view homes, buildings, structures, and landscapes that I otherwise may only see in magazines.
  • I’ve been able to see up close, walk under, and sometimes climb some of the largest trees in Richmond.
  • I get to witness daily, weekly and monthly changes in tree growth and development. 
  • I’ve been able to observe eggs in nests and some amazingly tiny baby birds and squirrels.
  • I’ve been able to analyze the inside of a tree, the decay in wood, and insects that appear to have lived their entire lives on the inside of a tree.
  • I get to see mushrooms that in the past I grouped as “a mushroom” but now see them as edible, medicinal, poisonous, beneficial, or decaying fungi.
  • I also get to meet some of the coolest and funniest acting and looking pets around.

My goal in writing this is to remind you how wonderful the plant world is around us and how fortunate we are, if we slow down and use our senses, to experience the trees and the plants and all they have to offer. 

Be Aware!

An Arborist’s-Eye View from a Recent Bike Trip

March 17, 2021 · 2 minute read
An Arborist’s-Eye View from a Recent Bike Trip

This past Friday I took a vacation day and rode my bike from my house in Henrico Co. to Pocahontas State Park for an overnight solo campout. The ride to Pocahontas was long — 70 miles along gravel roads, alleyways, and backroads paralleling I-95 south, to Henricus Park and Dutch Gap Conservation Area before heading west to Pocahontas. So what does this have to do with trees? Well, here are some things I observed:

  • There’s still a lot of ice damage in our area and a lot of trees with small and large, hanging, broken limbs just waiting to fall.
  • A lot of DIY tree work has been done out there. I hope everyone was safe, but by the looks of some of the cuts and the height of those cuts, I’m guessing people were using chainsaws and ladders (not a good combination). If you missed it, check out Mike Mather’s article on DIY Tree Work.
  • Parking cars under trees kills grass, compacts the soil and leaves the ground bare. Compacted and bare soil is one of the worst things for a tree. If parking under a tree is unavoidable, then add some mulch to help reduce the compaction while also helping the soil retain some moisture. 
  • The season of mulching has begun and by the looks of the TRUCK LOADS of mulch in some of the yards, it will far exceed the need. Extra mulch will likely be added around tree roots, sometimes referred to as volcano mulching. This will have a negative impact. Remember: 1-4 inches of mulch is all you need around your trees. And make sure the mulch is not on the trunk or root flare of the tree.
  • Bees are out and flying around, although not abundant, so be aware of when and what you or your hired professional are spraying on your lawn, shrubs, garden, or trees. Most have some type of bee protection label on them these days.
  • A lot of trees are being planted right now, so remember that root flare should be exposed and level with the existing grade when the tree is planted. Mulch should not be more than 1-4 inches deep. And burlap, wires, and twine should be cut away from the upper section of the tree, if not the entire root ball, to allow the roots to grow without obstacles.
  • A lot of road salt is still piled up on the sides of the roads. This will eventually break down and run off with water which could impact trees downstream of this runoff. I once heard a saying that applies in this instance – “The solution to pollution is dilution.”  Following an excessive rainfall, water around any of your trees that may have been affected by salt.

Last but not least, I saw lots of signs on my journey that spring is almost here. So get outside and enjoy them. Smell the flowers as they bloom and get some Vitamin D!

10 Ways to Not Kill a Tree

January 19, 2021 · 3 minute read
10 Ways to Not Kill a Tree

As an Arborist here in Richmond, I have seen a lot of trees and I have seen a lot of ways people have unknowingly damaged, stressed and even killed their trees.  So I thought I would give you 10 tips to help save or NOT kill your tree.

  1. Do not cut too many tree roots. You would think that that makes sense, but I see it all the time: new sidewalks, new driveways, sewer and water lines, and, yes, even irrigation systems. There are techniques that reduce or eliminate the cutting of roots for all the projects mentioned above. Check with an arborist if you need any help.
  1. Eliminate or reduce compaction to the soil around the root system of your tree. Driving over wet soil with a heavy truck, the daily path during a construction project, or constant foot traffic can compress your soil and reduce the air pore spaces in your soil which will cause tree roots to decline.
  1. Do not install guy wires around your newly planted tree or if they are installed they should be put on loosely and removed when they are not needed. Too often they are left on the trees for more than a year and they can cause irreparable damage to the tree.
  1. Do not change the grade around your tree. Adding too much soil or changing the grade will most likely damage your tree’s roots by smothering the roots or scraping away the absorption roots of a tree.
  1. Be very careful when using any herbicide around your tree. Most herbicides will cause some damage to your trees and some will cause a lot of damage to the roots and leaves of a tree. Some people feel that if a little works then a lot will work better; this is not true.
  1. Be careful with your weedeater around your trees. The sting on the weedeater will cut the bark off your tree. When your trees are installed make sure you do not let the grass grow up to the trunk of the tree, and use a mulch ring around your tree to keep mowers away too.
  1. When diverting water from your house or pool make sure you do not dump all the water at the base of a tree. You will likely have issues with root rot diseases.
  1. If an irrigation system is installed for your lawn it is almost 99% of the time adjusted to grow grass and not trees; short durations and poor timing will encourage tree roots to the surface which will cause root damage and tree stress in the summer. A longer water schedule with less frequency will encourage deep watering and a better environment for your tree roots.
  1. Planting too deep is not better. You should still see your root flare (location where the roots join the main stem of the tree) when you are done planting your tree and the root flare should be at grade of the existing soil. Too deep and you will likely have issues with trunk and root rot in the tree.  
  1. Now that you’ve planted your tree do NOT pile a lot of mulch around the base of the tree. I have inspected newly planted trees and have found the root flare six inches or more below the grade. I think the main reason for this is that many who plant trees assume the top of the tree container or rootball is the right location of the tree installed.  You must find the root flare before you even start to dig.

This list could go on and on, but I hope this will help you before your next project at your house or work. Trees can get very old and can handle a lot of stress, but too much stress and damage can cause them to decline and eventually die.

7 Common Trees You Can ID by Smell

December 16, 2020 · 2 minute read
7 Common Trees You Can ID by Smell

Tree identification has been a hobby of mine for over 20 years. There are multiple ways to identify trees — leaf shape, leaf color, bark color, bark texture, distinct buds, fruit, orientation of branches (opposite or alternate), tree form, tree location in the woods, and even TASTE.

The 7 species listed below are deciduous (loose their leaves in the winter) trees and one shrub that can be easily identified by smell:

  1. Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera): this tree is in the magnolia family and actually the tallest tree in the magnolia family.  A tulip poplar twig has a spicy smell like magnolia. The buds look like a duck’s bill.
  2. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum): The twigs are usually greenish in color and the roots of this tree smell like root beer; but the stems have a spicy sweet smell.
  3. Paw Paw (Asimina triloba): This tree is found in many of the wooded areas and parks in Richmond along the James River. Some say the leaves and twigs have the smell of diesel fuel.
  4. Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima): This very invasive tree can be seen in almost every location and along almost every undisturbed road and highway in Virginia. The twigs are very stout with a distinct, strong odor which many say reminds them of peanut butter. The inside pith of the branch is a dark brown.
  5. Spicebush (Lindera benzoin): This is the one shrub in the list that you will find along the river. Most of the year you can find a red fruit on this tree that, when crushed, reminds me of pepper. But the twigs also have a peppery, spicy smell.
  6. Black cherry (Prunus serotina): The twigs of this tree have a slight smell of almond, which is actually cyanide. This tree can also easily be identified by the bark that looks like burnt corn flakes or a black knot disease on the branches and twigs of the tree.
  7. Ginkgo fruit (Ginkgo biloba): While the twigs of this tree do not have a distinct smell, many times in the winter you will be standing there looking at this tree and notice a rancid smell around you like vomit or dog excrement. It’s actually the fruit that is all over the ground and on the bottom of your shoes.

Warning and Tree Care:  First there are many trees that have a lot of poison ivy growing up the trunks here in Richmond. The poison ivy vine can grow off the trunk of a tree to look like a branch (know how to ID poison ivy).  Lastly, we don’t want everyone out there on the trails or on street trees breaking off a lot of branches and limbs just to smell the tree. The technique I use is to take a branch (still on the tree) and use my finger nail to scratch the bark until you see the green on the limbs and SMELL (and taste!).

Foraging for Wild Yeast in the Woods

August 5, 2020 · 4 minute read
Foraging for Wild Yeast in the Woods

I’ve always wanted to try to make my own wild soda and wild fermented beer from berries that I found in the woods, using their native yeast to get the process going.

So what or who has inspired me to think about fermentation? First is the book The Wildcrafting Brewer by Pascal Baudar. Another is Tabol Brewing here in Richmond where I believe most of their beers are made with wild yeast they have collected. And another would be making my own sauerkraut with my wife.

Most fruits in the wild, like blackberry (still around right now), huckleberry (might find a few huckleberries around still in Richmond; they look like blueberries but actually are huckleberries), blueberries and eastern red cedar (they have berries) are all loaded with wild yeast. The cedar tree has berries that are actually not berries but really a fleshy cone. And speaking of eastern red cedar, it’s actually a juniper (Juniperus virginiana).

Tree on left is a male eastern red cedar and the one on the right is a female.

The blueish color you see on the cedar berries is called glaucous or glaucous bloom which is a covering of native yeast on the fleshy cone.  Do you know any other fruits with a cloudy grayish or bluish color on their skin? (How about grapes, blueberry, and plums.)

So, if you look at your window right now or take a walk in your neighborhood, go and look for the disturbed areas that are unmowed or left untouched (edges of woods, right of ways, fields, etc.) and I bet you’ll find some eastern red cedars. So you found a cedar that doesn’t have berries? Not all of them do. Cedar trees are dioecious, which means that they have either female parts (berries (fleshy cones) in cedar) or they are male (small cones that produce a lot of pollen in the spring).  Monoecious are trees that have both male and female productive organs; for example, if you have an oak tree, you get the pollen in the spring from the catkins and then later in the year the same tree will produce acorns.

So I’m setting off to go and harvest my berries. I had been on two long bike rides this weekend and saw piles of cedar trees full of berries. I told my wife on this day that I’m off for a bike ride to get some cedar berries. As I’m walking out my door, I’m thinking that although I’d love to get on my bike, I’m sure I can walk to find what I am looking for. I know the cedar in my front has never produced any berries (because it’s a male cedar) but then I start thinking I have power lines behind my house so I decided to walk down my yard to look for berries. Fifteen-feet off my deck I find my first cedar with berries. Another 20-feet, another cedar then into the back power lines I find more.

Close up picture of the fleshy cones on female eastern red cedar

All the fruit (the fleshy cone) I harvested had the glaucous bloom on them so I am hopeful I will get my soda soon. When these fruits mature in fall I hear they can be dried and used as a spice or flavoring. The distinct flavor in gin is from juniper berries. Also, I read that you can use juniper berries to help make a sourdough starter. So, I took my handful of juniper berries and added them to a 1 part sugar to 3 parts filtered water solution to feed the yeast and get the fermentation started. I also used a Ball jar with an airlock lid to let gasses release but also to keep bad bacteria out of my starter.

Fresh eastern red cedar in sugar starter with airlock top.

Why do I run around and collect wild foods and nibble on plants everywhere I go while I ride or walk? I want to reintroduce my body and more specifically my gut biome to wild bacteria and yeast you only find in the woods and in nature (it can not be found in a store or a bottle). I want to eat and breathe as much diversity as I can and visit as many diverse environments in the wildlands here in the RVA.  This journey to gut health made me realize how important healthy soils are for our trees too.

So what else did I find on my ride this past weekend?

Huckleberries

Blackberries

Peach trees in lawns

Pear trees in lawns

And one of my favorite mushrooms: Chicken of the Woods

Until next time.  See you in the woods!

Mushrooms Below the Surface (or Fungus Among Us)

June 24, 2020 · 2 minute read
Mushrooms Below the Surface (or Fungus Among Us)

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of rain. For me, this means more walking and less riding my bike in the woods. During my most recent walk, I noticed a lot of mushrooms popping up from the forest floor.

Lactarius indigo mushroom is mycorrhizal with oaks and with pines.

When many people and even most arborists see mushrooms on the ground they often think they are bad or something is wrong with the soil and that something needs to be done. They may even think that a spray or fungicide is needed to get rid of the mushroom.  

Amanita species

In contrast, when I see mushrooms my mind starts to travel deep into the soil and I think of the miles of mycelium that are under my feet, and I think healthy soil.  

Some armillaria mycelium I found under some bark of a tree on the forest floor.

Mycelium is basically the vegetative body of a mushroom that you never see and is below the ground. The small fruit body part we see above the ground (the Mushroom) is the sexual reproductive part of a mushroom. The mushroom releases spores. These spores are single cells, and they float around in the air and lay around on the ground or some other substrate to reproduce and produce hyphae. When two compatible hyphae meet they create mycelium. Mycelium spreads throughout the soil and creates symbiotic relationships with the roots of many trees and plants. Some have termed these mycelium networks in the soil as the information superhighway or the “Wood Wide Web.” These mycelium networks can link the roots of different plants so they can share nutrients and information. Paul Stamets called them “Earth’s Natural Internet”

When there is a beneficial relationship with mycelium and tree roots we call that mycorrhiza or mycorrhizal fungal associations. These benefits include water absorption, nutrient uptake, resistance to disease and pathogens, and increased plant health and stress tolerance. All the tree has to do is release some carbohydrates from its root system and the mycelium give the trees what they need.

Without good mycorrhiza in the soil a tree may not survive or thrive.

So, what else is so special about mycelium?  Here are just a few examples to look up and enjoy!

Cleaning up toxic waste

Building Insulation

Packaging

Building Materials

There are some mushrooms that cause damage or weaken trees and should be observed or monitored closely by a Certified Arborist.  Feel free to call.

P.S.  This list below could be very very long, but I suggest starting here on your mushroom education journey.

P.P.S.

Below you will find the Lactarius indigo mushroom that I harvested and ate. 

Edible RVA: Mulberry Salad

May 20, 2020 · 3 minute read
Edible RVA: Mulberry Salad
Box of spinach with wild mulberries on top… My lunch salad this past Monday.

Disclaimer: “do not eat any wild plants, herbs, trees, mushrooms until you have verified with your health professional that they are safe for you; these articles are for inspiration and entertainment.  No liability exists against Truetimber Arborists, Peter Girardi, or Urban Forest Dweller or anyone who works or volunteers for us; nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness, or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of information in these articles or website or through using any of the plants, trees, mushrooms, or things mentioned”

This is a fruit that will leave evidence on your hands.

Last Friday I was riding my bike on a breezy day in the Southside of Richmond, heading from my office to the Dogwood Dell area where I had parked my car earlier. As I cruised along the road with my head down in the wind, I saw the sidewalk up ahead blocked by leafy branches with red and mostly black fruit. I could see from over 100 yards away that it was a mulberry tree with ripe fruit. 

I hopped the curb and stopped under the shade of the tree and started to eat the darkest fruit I could find (there’s evidence that unripe mulberry fruit can cause digestive problems). Some I grabbed with my hand. Others I just ate right off the branch. This is a fruit that will leave evidence on your hands, your mouth, and your teeth. With my purple teeth, I smiled at a young man walking down the sidewalk. He did a double take. I think he was laughing at me.

I got back on my bike, and when I was near an apartment complex I saw two kids with a plastic bowl collecting mulberries. A few more miles down the street a young woman was reaching up into another mulberry tree in an empty lot collecting fruit. They must have been calling us to eat them!

These are the mulberries that caught my attention!

I guess since we are talking about mulberry trees, we should talk about the different mulberry trees you’ll find here in Richmond: red mulberry (Morus rubra), white mulberry (Morus alba), and paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera)… have fun looking them up.  

The fruit on the mulberry is technically not a true berry. It’s actually an aggregate of very small fruits called drupes. Other drupe fruits include peaches, plums and cherries. True berry fruits include blueberries, cranberries, grapes, and tomatoes.

Here are a few nutritional facts that I found on a quick internet search, on Dr. Mercola’s website:

  • Mulberry trees are on nearly every continent and have a long history of food use, as well as use in disease prevention
  • Traditional medicinal uses for mulberries included treating diseases of the mouth, throat and lungs, strengthening bone tissue, protecting vision, improving metabolism, increasing blood circulation and acting as a treatment for dysentery and a digestive aid
  • Mulberries contain vitamins C, K, B-complex, A and E, iron, potassium, magnesium and resveratrol, each bringing their own constituents for health

Here is another mulberry comment I found in a book titled Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by “Wildman” Steve Brill:

  • “The water of boiled young mulberry leaves, the unripe berries, uncooked young leaves, and mature leaves are toxic and mildly hallucinogenic”… Steve Brill explains that the hallucination may be caused by a “terrific headache and an upset stomach”.
Picture above: fruit going into the food dehydrator to see how they taste dried.

So what else have I seen out there while on my bike over the past few weeks that may or may not be edible or have some medicinal use (I actually didn’t sample or eat any of these listed below):

  • Knotweed, chicken of the woods mushroom, unripe purple leaf plum tree fruit, unripe blueberries in the woods, wild ginger, bear corn, morel mushroom in two clients yards (both didn’t know they had it there, just hiding in their garden), black locust flowers, and cattails.

Oh, and by the way: mulberry salad is delicious!

Edible RVA: A Foraging Foray In Our Urban Forest

April 29, 2020 · 8 minute read
Edible RVA: A Foraging Foray In Our Urban Forest

Foray RVA are my stories of walks, bike rides and adventures in the Richmond area while searching for edible plants and fungi. These experiences may include but are not limited to: recipes, tree identification, experiments with wild edibles, and generally the good, the bad and the ugly of my encounters in the urban forest.

I started exploring edible plants over 25 years ago, so I’m not new to it, but I’m also not an expert. Although I am relatively confident in my identification of trees, plants, and mushrooms, I am very aware I could make a mistake. So I’m not going to put a ton of time researching my articles since there are thousands of pages on “The Google” that can help give you more detailed information. Another note of caution: these are not your common foods bought at your local grocery store. Who knows, you just may be allergic to the same plants I have eaten and about which I am writing.

(Disclaimer: Sorry but I have to do this: Do not eat any wild plants, herbs, trees, mushrooms until you have verified with your health professional that they are safe for you; these articles are for inspiration and entertainment.  No liability exists against Truetimber Arborists, Peter Girardi, or Urban Forest Dweller or anyone who works or volunteers for us. Nor can they be held responsible for any allergy, illness, or injurious effect that any person or animal may suffer as a result of information in this article or through using any of the plants, trees, mushrooms, or other items mentioned.)

This Foray was inspired by viewing photos from a year ago where I made a homemade wine from Elaeagnus fruit. The fruit I collected was most likely Silverthorn (Elaeagnus pungens), a plant closely related to Russian olive and Autumn olive.

(3 lbs of Elaeagnus fruit)

Unfortunately I let the wine sit too long and instead of drinking it when it was ready, it became too sour (some would say it “went bad’).  During the process of aging (rotting) I had some of the wine and it was OK, but not very great.  The Elaeagnus species are considered an invasive species so most people spend a lot of time and money removing this shrub before it takes over the native flora; well I went back to the same spot this year for more fruit to try my skills at wine again and all I found were freshly removed browning shrubs and stumps; I’m sad but I guess I’m also glad.

The actual motivation for the Foray today was to find Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) which I had seen during my bike rides over the past few weeks and which, if you didn’t know, is an invasive species. I had only nibbled on garlic mustard before and never harvested any large amounts of it or cooked it at home. I heard stories of friends harvesting this plant to make a pesto. So, this was my chance to try and report on my harvest. I felt like it was getting a little on the late side of harvest, so I knew I needed to act quickly. I’m pretty sure you can walk along most any road or trail near the river and find this plant. Right now the plant is upright about 18-24 inches tall with white flowers. It’s usually found growing in a group. I harvested about two large handfuls of the smaller leaves and younger stem of this plant (below) and tried to saute it in a pan with butter.

I’ll say the raw leaves had more flavor, and I definitely didn’t succeed at cooking this plant this time (probably too much salt). But it’s not too late to try to make pesto.

In the picture above you can see a few other plants and mushrooms I found during my Foray. For simplicity and for comparison I attempted to cook all the items separately in a large frying pan with grass-fed butter, some extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt.

American Basswood Tree (Linden)

The American basswood (Tilia americana) is the American version of the European Linden tree (Tilia sps.) which is a very common street tree, an ornamental tree here in Richmond and across the country. Be aware of possible pesticides that could be on this tree before tasting the leaves, buds or flowers. It is common to find heavy populations of aphids on this tree which is why it sometimes will be sprayed by commercial tree and lawn service companies. But also “bee” aware: New regulations restrict the timing of any pesticide on these trees when the tree is in flower or about to flower to reduce the risk of bees dying from the pesticides being in the flowers nectar and/or pollen.  

So, I tried the raw small leaves of the basswood this weekend and kept chewing on the sweet nutritious young leaf and noticed a little bit of mucilaginous reaction similar to that of an okra but not as much. I also tried to fry the leaves in butter/olive oil and actually I think these leaves would do better raw in a salad.

Pheasant’s Back mushroom or Dryad’s Saddle mushroom (Polyporus squamosus)

  • I have been eyeing this mushroom for years and tried it for the first time this weekend.  The top has a very distinct marking of an actual pheasant. Another main key characteristic is it has a melon smell; some say cucumber or watermelon. Every time I’ve seen it here in RVA it has been on a dead log on the forest floor. This was a tasty mushroom but nothing that blew my socks off. I will definitely try and eat it again the next time I find it. 
Wood ear mushroom (Auicularia auricula-Judae)
  • This wood ear mushroom is kinda gross and slimy looking and so strange to touch and to eat, but for some reason, I like to eat it.  Over my entire career as an arborist and tree climber, I would prune limbs out of many oak trees unwittingly passing up an edible mushroom.  The wood ear is a popular ingredient in soup dishes at Chinese restaurants. In the past I have cut them into small pieces, sautéed them for good while in butter, puréed with a mixer, and then poured the thickish brown sauce on top of a burger as a mushroom gravy. That turned out well.  Last night however was a little interesting if not dangerous. I tried to fry in butter, and I guess, as the little moist ears heated up, the high water content in the mushrooms caused them to hop out of the pan landing on my shirt, the wall, and even my wife.  Maybe frying wood ear is not the best technique, maybe more of a boil or cooking in a soup is the way to go.  There’s always a next time!
Greenbrier vine (Smilax sps.)
  • The newest growth of the Greenbrier vine is supposed to be edible and some say best when cooked like green beans or asparagus. I loved the way these new sprouts looked after being cooked in butter and salt. They were savory and delicious.  They were tasty raw as well. I enjoyed plucking the tip and popping it in my mouth as I walked the trail. Ants seem to love them too, so be on the lookout.

Stinging nettle (above)

  • Stinging nettle is one of my favorites to harvest, cook, and eat; it really tastes so good. You must look up stinging nettle! It’s so nutritious and such an important plant, but boy does it hurt. The plant has spines that when touched release toxins causing skin irritations. I feel a lot of pain at first that eventually turns to itching. According to the internet, some people may experience severe reactions when in contact with the spines.
  • I have been on numerous mountain bike rides deep in the mountains where you can not turn around and the stinging nettles are six feet tall and have closed the trail and the only way through is to pedal fast, cry, scream, laugh and cry some more. A trick is to follow the poor rider in front of you very closely. The wind created forms a wave in which you can be protectively enveloped for a few seconds before the wall of spiny plants fall. That’s what I tell myself anyway. I know its just a game I play to get through the torture.
Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Apparently, if you adjust your picture to the right orientation. the flower looks like a hummingbird (this was not my observation but was mentioned during a lecture in the past from Nancy Ross Hugo)
Very edible flower, you can even add it to an ice cube for a fun Spring Party

In this picture, you can see there were more flowers than ice. When I do it again I will use fewer flowers.

Use redbud flowers as decorations if you want to add a little design to your cake next spring. The cake above was made by my two daughters. It was beautiful and soooo good.

Redbud tree

I’ve always wanted to try the pods (the young fruit) of the redbud. They look like snow peas, and I’ve read that the fruit is tasty when eaten young and tender.  Well, these were not very tasty. I think I will try again when they get a little larger to see if they get less bitter and have more flavor.

So, this was round one of my Foray RVA articles. Just thought I would share the mistakes I made this past weekend when harvesting and cooking these plants:

  • I tried too many new plants/trees/mushrooms in one night, if I had an issue or reaction I wouldn’t know which was the culprit.  
  • I harvested the stinging nettle without gloves (some may call it stupidity while others call it grit)
  • I tried to fry a very wet mushroom in a very hot buttery pan. Water and hot oil is never a good idea in the kitchen. I thought I knew better.  Wood ear and oil went everywhere.

What is the Soil Food Web?

March 17, 2020 · 2 minute read
What is the Soil Food Web?

The soil food web is essentially a healthy and functional soil that is living with bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa, as well as more complex nematodes and micro-arthropods — and the sometimes visible earthworms, insects and small vertebrates. The soil food web is living soil and not dead soil, aka dirt.

These living organisms in the soil can convert silt, clay, sand, rocks and organic matter into available nutrients for our trees. Trees will also help feed these organisms with exudates (soluble sugars, amino acids and other compounds secreted by roots; these are produced from the sun and photosynthesis). Actually the trees and plants can send signals to these living organisms in the soil that indicate the nutrients the trees and plants need. 

So what does a healthy soil do?

  • Retains nutrients
  • Increases plant available nutrients
  • Suppresses insects and diseases on trees and plants by making them more healthy to defend against diseases and pests
  • Helps decompose some toxins that may be in the soil or make them less biologically available
  • Builds soil structure
  • Increases water holding capacity in your soil
  • Reduces run-off from rain or irrigation
  • Increases in carbon stored in soil (Google it! It’s very interesting and promising science.)

What does dead or unhealthy soil, aka dirt, look like or do?

  • Exposed bare soil is never good
  • Erosion is more likely to occur with dead soil
  • Trees become dependent on inorganic fertilizer inputs in dead or unhealthy soils
  • Trees may show leaf discoloration, smaller leaf size, short internodal growth
  • Trees and more likely to have inspect and disease issues 

Above picture: four-foot rod easily pushed into healthy soil

What does healthy soil look like?

  • The soil should smell good, should smell earthy and maybe like mushrooms.
  • Soil shouldn’t be void of smells or have a very bad smell (sewer smelling is bad).
  • You may see earthworms in healthy living soil
  • Should be dark; the soil should be glued together and holding on to roots
  • you should see other living organisms in the soil.

Healthy soil EQUALS healthy tree… similarly like a healthy gut EQUALS healthy human

What can you do to help your soil?  

  • Stop tilling your yard or garden.  Actually tilling your yard is likely to damage a lot of small roots adjacent to mature trees.
  • There should be no exposed or bare soil in your yard; always mulch or plant cover plants in your yard or garden.
  • Increase the diversity in your yard (not just one tree and one species of grass)
  • Increase organic matter in your soil
  • Reduce compaction in your soil: so do not aerate or move when the soil is wet; do not drive on your soil with cars or trucks, especially when the soil is wet.

See the below links if you’re interested in more info from the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the Soil Food Web or if you’d like a digital copy of the Soil Biology Primer book.