Trees come crashing down, while other plants emerge
Winter Storm Riley, the first of three nor’easters to move through our area in less than two weeks, brought down an alarming number of trees, which in turn pulled down power and phone lines, wreaking havoc on roads and in yards. Mature pines in open areas seemed to have taken a particularly hard hit.
My guess was that these pines had suffered more because of their full foliage, which offered more resistance to the 60 mph winds, while hardwoods were still bare and therefore offered less resistance. To find out if I was on the right track, I emailed Joe Rossetti, Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) senior forester for Northern Virginia, which includes Rappahannock and Culpeper Counties. After consulting with VDOF urban forest conservationist
James McGlone, Rosetti confirmed that resistance from the pines’ foliage likely was a big factor in the destruction they incurred.
“Because the pines had needles, they caught the wind more than the hardwoods,” Rossetti wrote. When the derecho happened in the summer a few years back, “plenty of hardwood trees were blown over because their leaves caught the wind, resulting in greater force on the tree,” he added.
Most of the pines that fell over were white pine, with Virginia pine coming in second, according to Rosetti, while the fewest were loblolly and shortleaf pines. This is likely because loblolly and shortleaf have adjusted better to being grown in open spaces and exposed sites than white and Virginia pines have, he explained. To build firmness in the face of wind when they are grown in open areas, the former “actually change the way their roots are structured in the soil.”
White and Virginia pines, on the other hand, do not grow differently in the open than in forests. “Basically,” Rosetti wrote, “they never adjusted from being forest grown trees, where the force of wind is spread out through many trees, to being open grown trees where each tree has to withstand the force of wind on its own.”
He also pointed out what I noticed on a drive to Warrenton after the storm — that the eastern red cedars that grow in the open along the highway showed little damage from Riley. Even though they also had a full canopy of leaves, “very few” of them failed in the storm, Rossetti wrote. Eastern red cedars, which are common in such exposed areas, which also include unused pastures and fields and in fence rows, are “well adapted to being open grown, which means they have to survive that sort of wind on occasion,” he explained.
Despite the damage to individual trees, the forests should be fine, Rossetti wrote. “For every tree that failed in the storm,” he pointed out, “there were thousands or possibly millions in the state that did not fail.”
Such storms are one of the ways nature recycles unhealthy trees, enabling other, healthier trees to get more light and survive. “The vast majority of the trees that failed had some sort of problem — a structural defect, branch union defect, damage, or root problem,” Rossetti wrote. He underscored the need for landowners to have a certified arborist check trees for potential issues that may be affected by winds on a regular basis “to mitigate these defects before they cause trees to fail at a bad time.”
Despite the storm, some native trees and wildflowers were still valiantly going about their business, which this time of year is reproduction. The week before the storm, Rappahannock resident Mike Wenger, a Virginia master naturalist with the Old Rag chapter, reported his American hazelnut trees
were getting busy with that: The males are sporting catkins, which produce the species’ pollen, and the females’ red blooms were starting to open. Bruce Jones, who has naturalized most of his property, was out cleaning up after the storm and reported finding, in his woods, hepatica blooming and emerging leaves emerging of trout lily and shooting stars.
Since the storm, I didn’t get up my mountain to look for signs of spring until Sunday (March 11), an unseasonably cold day. I found two hepatica, their leaves shriveled by recent freezes, starting to bloom. Such spring ephemerals are adapted to dealing with temperature swings and tend to keep their flowers closed when temperatures plunge. Why risk damage to the flowers when no pollinators are out in such cold weather?
I also found one cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine
concatenate), another spring ephemeral, sporting buds striped wintergreen leaves emerging. In looking for such wildflowers on the forest floor, I noticed a plus side of the storm for some animals that don’t climb: the wind had brought down onto the forest floor hundreds of pine cones, nuts and seeds that had been unreachable in the canopy.
On the way up the mountain, I stopped by the small pond there to check for amphibian activity. With ice again covering the pond, I was not surprised by the lack of wood frog eggs, but I did notice eggs of another amphibian — the spotted salamander. Encased in a milky white, gelatinous outer envelope, they were easy to spot in the clear water.
This species usually breeds at about the same time as the wood frog but has a different strategy for egg placement. Both attach their egg clusters to debris in the water, particularly downed branches, but the frog lays more of a sheet of eggs on the surface, while the salamander attaches its globular egg clusters to debris near the bottom of the shallow pond, escaping the ice that might form on the surface.
This is the first year I haven’t seen both amphibian species lay their eggs at the same time. And I was disappointed to have missed the salamanders laying their eggs. I had planning this year to finally go up at night to try to see these shy nocturnal creatures reproducing. They spend much of the rest of their lives underground, so are rarely seen.
I expect the next sustained warm spell will bring an explosion of wood frog breeding, but with global warming destabilizing the weather, which in turn messes with the phenology of amphibians as well as plants, I’m not laying any bets.
The Virginia Department of Transportation was out cleaning up the many fallen pine trees and boughs along U.S. 211 between the exits to the town of Washington.
Despite leaves being shriveled by recent freezes, this hepatica is blooming on Oventop Mountain, near Sperryville.
Another early spring ephemeral wildflower, cutleaf toothwort, braves the cold weather and shows buds about to bloom.