Five Myths about Trees

Article and photo (Sara Holtz) by Plant NOVA Natives

It’s no myth that trees hold a special place in our collective psyche. Trees play a prominent role in myths, often symbolizing life and rebirth. Unfortunately, some of the stories about them are just plain wrong.

1. Trees need big piles of mulch. Or perhaps we should call this The Myth of the Angry Volcano Gods, who are appeased by stuffing trees down their maws. It’s hard to know how this harmful practice got started, but we are seeing it everywhere. Trees should be planted with the top of their roots level to the ground, just as in nature. Mulch should never be allowed to touch the trunk, as it causes bark rot. Shredded mulch can form a barrier to water when it mats down, so arborist wood chips are preferred – assuming mulch is needed at all – and no more than 2-4 inches deep. The Fairfax County Tree Basics booklet, which you can download for free, shows proper tree planting and care practices and is available in multiple languages.

2. Tree wounds need dressing. Trees cannot heal the way we do after they are cut, which is one reason why topping a tree is such a bad idea. A broken limb should be trimmed back to just beyond the branch cuff then left alone to try to close over, which with luck it may accomplish before fungi set in. Painting tar on the surface just encourages rot.

3. All leaning trees are dangerous. It is normal for trees to grow toward the light. They reinforce their wood to make themselves stable. If you are worried that a tree may become hazardous, you can get an opinion from a consulting arborist who is certified by the International Society of Arborists (ISA) and who has no financial interest in cutting it down.

4. Trees litter. Well, trees do create leaf “litter”, but that’s an unfriendly word to use to describe feeding the soil and providing habitat for fireflies and wintering grounds for butterflies. The best thing you can do for a tree and the ecosystem is leave the leaves underneath where they fall. If you are afraid they will smother the grass, you can chop them up with a lawn mower so they at least add organic matter to the soil, a practice that is good for the trees and the grass (but hard on the critters).

5. One tree is as good as another. Not so! All trees can provide shade and capture stormwater, but only native trees support biodiversity. In fact, native trees are the very backbone of our local ecosystem, providing the majority of the leaves upon which our native caterpillars feed, which in turn provide the diet required by baby songbirds. In fact, not only do some non-native trees do nothing to feed the birds, they are actually invasive, taking over and destroying what is left of our remnant woods and starting to threaten our bigger forests as well. With few exceptions, there are native trees to serve any landscaping need. Find out all about them on the Plant NOVA Trees website.

Review of Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis

Article by FMN Marilyn Schroeder
Dan Schwartz, Soil Science and FMN Instructor extraordinaire, knew what he was talking about when he recommended Teaming with Microbes.  With a conversational style and lots of pictures, Teaming is the perfect naturalist guide to soil structure and the organisms living in it.  I couldn’t wait to read each succeeding chapter – Bacteria, Archaea, Fungi, Algae, Protozoa, Nematodes….  There’s so much I didn’t know about what’s happening under our feet – even after taking the wonderful Master Naturalist soils class and field trip.
But wait, there’s more!  The book’s subtitle is The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web.  The first half of the book lays the groundwork (ha,ha!) covering the science  – soil structure, chemistry, biology, microbiology…the whole ecosystem.  Then, for gardeners, the second half describes how to foster a healthy, active food web to nourish a bountiful garden.
Teaming with Microbes (Timber Press, 2010, 220 pages) is available in the Fairfax County Library.

Research and Monitoring of Macroinvertebrates

Feature photo: The Darrin Fresh Water Institute display. See for more information.

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

On October 7, 2022, I had the opportunity to attend the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Research Showcase in Troy, NY at the Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D. Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS). It was an opportunity for RPI alumni and guests to experience first-hand the research that shapes and leads innovation on a global scale. I was particularly attracted to the display for the Jefferson Project of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute. The Jefferson Project at Lake George, a collaboration between RPI, IBM Research, and The FUND for Lake George, studies fresh water ecological systems to understand impacts of human activities and how to mitigate those effects. Research being conducted can be found here:

My career has been in environmental engineering and the modeling of resources.

Macroinvertebrate types at the Darrin display being reviewed by the author.

I also volunteer for Fairfax County macroinvertebrate monitoring. Hence, the display was a fascinating convergence of the three topics. While there, an alumna started discussing macroinvertebrate modeling to water parameters. I had not realized the enormous amount of research that was being conducted over the years on macroinvertebrates as it related to their importance for environmental monitoring.

Lake George is a source of clean drinking water, food, and recreation. It has an eco-system of macroinvertebrates. Thus, I had a new context for macroinvertebrate monitoring in Fairfax County. Tiny macroinvertebrates are

Darrin Fresh Water Institute table close-up.

essential for the complex food chain in Lake George. Clams, mussels, snails and some insect larvae consume algae and control its overgrowth. Amphipods and isopods, through their shredding activity (called detritus processing), are essential for recycling nutrients in the lake, and are a source of food for fish. Macroinvertebrates are generally sensitive to pollution, warming of the lake due to climate change, and disturbances from shoreline development. Researchers want to understand what environmental factors determine the spatial distribution of macroinvertebrates, the population dynamics of important species, and how human activity is affecting this ecosystem. This is important given that these species are indicators of water quality.

Researchers use a variety of tools to collect the macroinvertebrates and understand the complex food chain at Lake George. Researchers survey the physics, chemistry, and biology of Lake George and also conduct experiments to investigate how some invasive species of Lake George interact, and how they may be affecting the water quality of the lake.

Those who might be interested in the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District’s Volunteer Stream Monitoring should review this link:

Those interested in reading some recent macroinvertebrate research papers should review these references found on the Internet:

• Sci. Technol. 2019, 53, 10, 6025–6034, Modeling the Sensitivity of Aquatic Macroinvertebrates to Chemicals Using Traits, Van den Berg et al.

• Water, 16 September 2021, Sec. Water and Human Systems, Volume 3 – 2021, , Benthic Macroinvertebrates as Ecological Indicators: Their Sensitivity to the Water Quality and Human Disturbances in a Tropical River, Tampo et al.

• Journal of Freshwater Ecology, Volume 36, 2021, Development of a predictive model for benthic macroinvertebrates by using environmental variables for the biological assessment of Korean streams, Min and Kong.

Want birds and butterflies? Plant native shrubs!

Photo: Courtesy Plant NOVA Natives/Plant NOVA Trees (Shrubby St. John’s Wort)

This month’s newsletter article to share from Plant NOVA Natives/Plant NOVA Trees

Want birds and butterflies?

Want birds and butterflies? Plant native shrubs! When it comes to the curb appeal of our houses and other buildings, the difference between starkly naked and softly clothed is the shrubs. What is a shrub, anyway? According to famous bird expert David Allen Sibley, “If you can walk under it, it’s a tree; if you have to walk around it, it’s a shrub.” Other than being multi-stemmed and relatively short, a shrub is pretty much the same as a tree and therefore provides the same environmental benefits, albeit to a smaller degree. And the difference between a native shrub and a non-native one is that the former will not only beautify a property but will turn it into a living landscape that supports the butterflies and birds.

Many people are looking at their yards and at public land and realizing that a lot of the space is being wasted. Turf grass has its advantages for certain purposes, such as providing a place to walk or play sports, but as a non-native plant, it does nothing for the ecosystem and requires a lot of input to maintain. Chipping away at the lawn with native shrubs can quickly cover the ground at a very low cost. Beyond the initial watering to get them established, they will require little or no maintenance from then on.

For small spaces, there are some native shrubs that naturally stay short, such as Shrubby Saint John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum) with its bright yellow flowers. There are also smaller cultivars of larger shrubs, such as Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) with its red berries that persist into January until they finally soften up and become a food source for hungry birds. If you use shrubs whose ultimate height fits the space you have in mind, the yearly shearing task will be eliminated. These and many other native shrubs are described on the Plant NOVA Natives website, which also points to places to buy them.

Some native shrubs grow tall enough to provide shade and can be an alternative to a small flowering tree. Common Witch-hazel is an example of that. The twigs have been used for divining rods, and the leaves get cute bumps in the shape of a witch’s hat. This native shrub is also magical for the flowers that are revealed in November after the leaves have fallen off. Those bumps, by the way, are caused by the reaction of the plant to a chemical injected by a tiny insect, the Witch-hazel Cone Gall Aphid. The cone-shaped bumps provide food and shelter to the female aphids as they lay their eggs.

Native shrubs can fill in the spaces between trees. From an environmental perspective, this arrangement is ideal, providing shelter and food at multiple heights, something we have lost in many of our woods to excessive browsing by deer. (In fact, although “Nature’s first green is gold,” if you look into the woods of Northern Virginia right now, there is a suspicious amount of green, much of which is due to invasive species such as Multiflora Rose and Asian Bush Honeysuckle. The leaves of invasive plants often emerge earlier and persist later than those of our native shrubs.) In our own yards, we can take steps to protect plants from deer and to swap out invasive shrubs for native ones and thus help support our local ecosystem.

The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) is collecting data on how many trees are planted in Northern Virginia as it works toward the goal of 600,000 by 2025. For this purpose, shrubs count as trees, so VDOF is encouraging everyone to report plantings of both. A reporting form can be found on the Plant NOVA Trees website.

Is Your Elevator Speech Ready? *

Photo by Russ Ward on Unsplash

How can it be ready if I don’t know what it is?  Imagine you’ve just stepped on an elevator with someone who doesn’t know you are a passionate Virginia Master Naturalist (or any volunteer service you work in).  The average attention span is just about 30 seconds before minds start wandering, so you may only have 30+ seconds to make a powerful first impression.  Think of this time as if you are going on an elevator ride from Floor 1 to Floor 5.  You have that sliver of time to open the door to educate.  It’s about being prepared to recruit new volunteers for our chapter or for your favorite service project. To recruit to our chapter, have the potential volunteer sign up for our newsletter on our website or write to [email protected].

Your pitch can include your passion about volunteering, statistics, storytelling, and an invitation to future opportunities.  Here’s a worksheet to walk you through the process.  Answer all 8 questions and you could have the basis for your elevator speech.  Put it all together – say it out loud just to yourself.  Practice it.  Practice saying it to others.  Time yourself.  Know it.  Have it in your “volunteer recruitment  toolbox.” Be ready to talk.  One volunteer who worked in Fairfax County’s Invasive Management Area program dressed as an oak tree draped with an invasive vine and died dramatically at a Halloween Party.   They created their own “elevator” opportunity!

If you are not able to answer a question today, this is a sign that you need to do some additional preparation when that next elevator speech opportunity pops up!  We suggest that you reflect on your experiences, impact and accomplishments.  Develop several possible answers so that you have the greatest chance for turning an opportunity into a new volunteer the next time those elevator doors open.

Here are some examples of members’ elevator speeches.  Add yours to the comment section at the bottom of this article.

1) My name is Marilyn.  I am a certified Virginia Master Naturalist, currently serving as Past President of the Fairfax chapter.  I manage a volunteer corps of more than 250 members on a mission to provide natural resource education, citizen science and stewardship to protect Fairfax’ natural resources.

If I need to elaborate, I say:  We recruit, develop and enable our members so they can support the natural resource projects of our sponsors and partners.  This includes projects like invasive plant management, litter cleanups, collecting data on pollinators or birds, leading nature walks or advising hometowns on landscaping for wildlife.

2) I’m Janet. I am a Virginia Master Naturalist. I’m a volunteer who’s been trained to educate the public about nature in our area, collect data for environmental research and take care of our area’s natural resources. What do I do? I’m a floater and have done a little of everything. I counted Burrowing Owls in still photos for the Global Owl Project, counted invertebrates in streams, read stories to children at a nature center and played Mrs. Claus there, removed invasive plants, grew wild celery sea grass and planted it, served on our board, and currently monitor a Bluebird Trail. I love the variety of service I can provide to care for our planet home!

*This article is adopted from Volunteer Fairfax’s Webinar: Teaching Your Volunteers the Elevator Speech, Presentation by Susan Sanow, Volunteer Fairfax[email protected]

Let’s Rev it Up with R3

FMN would like to re-announce a program that supports Fairfax County Schools. In fact, some schools may already be participating in this program so “Rev it Up for 2023” maybe more appropriate. At any rate, FMN has been provided with a revitalized R3 operating guide and volunteers may earn service hours for their efforts planning, planting, and maintaining gardens specific to this program.

FMN Stewardship service code –

S177: FCPS Revitalize, Restore, Repurpose (R3) Program — FCPS

The focus of this program is to provide support to Fairfax County Public School’s Revitalize, Restore, Repurpose (R3) Program.  FMN members are needed to support Fairfax County Storm Water Management (FCSWM) ecologists responsible for working with the schools on these outdoor classrooms.  FMN members will assist with educating students about stormwater management and provide support maintaining the gardens once FCSWM and the school completes the initial installation. Maintenance generally includes: providing guidance to the students and schools for long term care, and regular weeding to keep the site in good condition, cutting back dead growth to allow for new growth every winter/early spring, and to provide specialized support as needed by each school and site.

If you have questions please contact:
FMN coordinator – Jessica Fish [email protected]
FCSWM Manager – Dionna Bucci [email protected]

For general information read about the R3 program.

For information tailored to FMN participants, please contact Jessica.

Spotted Lanternfly Egg Mass Surveys– a virtual training for volunteer community scientists, February 21st

Photo Credit: Spotted Lanternfly by Stephen Ausmus, USDA

Tuesday, February 21, 2023
12:00 – 1:00 PM EST

Brown Bag Webinar

Registration and additional details.

The spotted lanternfly is an invasive insect that was discovered in Virginia in 2018, and has the potential to cause significant economic and ecological impacts. Help us monitor its spread by looking for egg masses in high-risk areas. This training will cover the biology and identification of the spotted lanternfly, its current distribution, how and where to conduct egg mass surveys, and how to record data.

Presentations will be given by Lori Chamberlin and Katlin DeWitt from the Virginia Department of Forestry.

These classes are approved FMN CE.  Record hours in Better Impact under Continuing Education > All Continuing Education.  For Approved CE Organization, choose VMN-State or Chapter offered.  In Description, include the name of the class.

The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia

The cover image is a watercolor created by Trish Crowe specially for this publication.

The Socrates Project: Poisonous Plants in Virginia is a reference guide to poisonous plants native to Virginia. Click the image to view the publication, or click here.

This second edition is a joint effort between the Virginia Master Naturalist Program–a statewide corps of volunteers providing education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities–the Blue Ridge Poison Center at University of Virginia Health, and the University of Virginia School of Medicine’s Division of Medical Toxicology – Department of Emergency Medicine.

NOTE: For immediate, expert help if you suspect anyone has eaten or been exposed to any of these plants, call the Blue Ridge Poison Center right away: 1-800-222-1222.  [Health care providers may call the dedicated provider line: 800-451-1428.

The cover image is a watercolor created by Trish Crowe specially for this publication. Learn more about the artist and her work here: Trish Crowe

The Cleopatra Project: Poisonous and Venomous Animals in Virginia

The cover image is a watercolor created by Trish Crowe specially for this publication.

To help Virginians avoid poisonings from encounters with wildlife, a reference guide to 32 poisonous and venomous animals that live in Virginia is now available as a free, downloadable book.

“The Cleopatra Project – Poisonous and Venomous Animals in Virginia” is filled with full-color photographs and written to be an easily read, valuable reference for parents, educators, healthcare providers and the general public.

The book is a collaboration between the Virginia Master Naturalists – a statewide corps of volunteers providing education, outreach, and service dedicated to the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities – the Blue Ridge Poison Center at UVA Health and the UVA School of Medicine’s Division of Medical Toxicology.

Work on the book began in 2021 as a response to the hundreds of exposures to poisonous and venomous animals reported annually in Virginia. Encounters between these animals and humans typically occur when an animal reacts to an unexpected disturbance or to a perceived threat. Each document entry includes a description of the animal, its habitat and likely geographic range in Virginia, the source of poison or venom, potential physical symptoms and possible animal “look-alikes.”

The Cleopatra Project is now available at It joins a companion book, “The Socrates Project – Poisonous Plants of Virginia,” which describes the 25 poisonous plants that grow in the wild in Virginia and can be downloaded at


Mira, A Spectacular Variable Star

The Online Planetarium ( star map snap shot, showing the location of Mira (circled) at 5:00 AM on June 15, 2023 in the eastern sky. Mira might be hard to see until later in the summer.

Illustrations and article by FMN Stephen Tzikas

When does a bright star come out of nowhere, rise in the east, and attract a gathering of followers? It might sound like a familiar story about a star in the east a couple millennia ago. However, this star repeats a cycle every 11 months, and is an attention getting event in the constellation Cetus. The star is Omicron Ceti, otherwise known as Mira by its common name. It is my favorite variable star and I track it continuously when it is not behind the Sun, which makes it unobservable for a few months. Mira is unique in that its brightness varies from nearly a magnitude of 2 to dimmer than magnitude 9. This means that at its brightest, it is one of the brightest stars in the sky. At its dimmest, it is invisible and a telescope is needed to see it. One can watch it over the weeks, even as short as days, and see it growing brighter and then dimmer. Serious observers like myself will submit their observations to the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). There are many other variable stars that one can observe, and some of them have cycles that are entirely naked eye. But observing with binoculars opens many opportunities. There are many reasons why a star can regularly vary in brightness.

Mira is part of a group of variable stars called long-term Mira variables, named after Mira itself, the most famous

Light curve for Mira produced by all observers, including the author. Notice the sinusoidal manner in which Mira varies in brightness over the months and years. The orange markers are the author’s contributions.

of this type of star. Mira type variable stars are red giant stars in the later stages of evolution, and they pulsate with cycles longer than 100 days, and with amplitudes greater than 2.5 in visual magnitude. They will eventually become white dwarf stars at the center of a planetary nebula, the remains of the original star’s dissipated outer envelope.

I track the brightness of Mira by comparison to the known brightness magnitudes of neighboring stars that do not change in magnitude. When at its brightest, I track Mira’s changes in magnitude visually. When it is dimmer, by binoculars. At its dimmest, I need a telescope.

Mira will be at brightest again in June 2023. Mira just passed its dimmest magnitude in January 2023. The challenge this year is that Mira will be its brightest at early dawn rising in the eastern sky. That may make it unfavorable for some people to see, but as we get into the summer months, Mira will be higher and higher in the eastern sky before sunrise and probably still a naked eye object depending on your location’s light pollution.

Light curve specific for the author’s input since 2013, with other observer contributions removed.  This contribution is thus one part of a more complete light curve.

One can check the magnitude of Mira on the AAVSO website ( Besides Mira there are other common naked eye variable stars that can be observed. Learn more at:, the Astronomical League’s variable star program.