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?



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


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.


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.