Free Trees for Communities

Article and photo by Plant NOVA Natives

As community associations around Northern Virginia ramp up their native tree planting efforts, they are looking around to find ways to make it affordable. Burke Centre resident Craig Willett has solved that problem for his neighbors: all they have to do is fill out a simple form to get a free tree. A member of Burke Centre Conservancy’s volunteer Open Space Committee, Craig has organized a system both for private property and for common land. On private land, residents pick up seedlings from Craig’s house and plant them themselves. On common land, the Trustees of the various clusters put in a request, and Craig and his colleagues will install trees or shrubs either to replace ones that have died or to reforest open areas. You can see him pictured here with fellow volunteer Mike Hathaway, in red.

Trees grow slowly, and they also die slowly. Many neighborhoods around Northern Virginia have been losing their canopy coverage, bit by bit, so that once pleasantly shaded yards and streets where neighbors and children could gather are gradually becoming intolerable as our summer temperatures rise. Communities that wish to reverse this trend are most likely to succeed if they build a long-term routine for tree care and tree replacement into their master plans. Where there is no community association, residents will need to step forward to help each other make a plan.

Burke Centre Conservancy obtains its tree seedlings from Fairfax ReLeaf, a non-profit organization of volunteers who plant and preserve native trees on public and common lands in Northern Virginia. Individual landowners may also request seedlings from Fairfax ReLeaf.

Any community in Fairfax County that owns open space may also apply for free trees from the Fairfax Tree Preservation and Planting Fund. It is not necessary to be a 501(c)3 organization to apply as long as the open space is commonly owned. This is a solid funding source for organizations that want to plant either seedlings or larger trees. The application process looks a little intimidating at first glance because of the long list of requirements, but in fact the required steps are all ones that any organization would take anyway when planting trees.

Programs for obtaining free native trees are also available to communities in Arlington and Falls Church. And although not free, there are numerous ways to obtain native trees for a very low price. For example, the Virginia Department of Forestry sells tree and shrub seedlings for $2.00 apiece for orders of ten or more. Our local native plant garden centers all sell medium-sized trees in containers at reasonable prices. Those trees may look a little small when first planted, but they will rapidly catch up to trees that were planted when larger, since older trees suffer more transplant shock. Two wholesalers of larger trees offer their trees at wholesale cost to people who are organizing community plantings. Links to all these programs can be found on the Plant NOVA Trees website.

Since 2018, Burke Centre Conservancy has planted over 600 bare root seedlings, which is in keeping with the nature-centered philosophy of this community with its extensive network of trails through the woods. More details about their process can be found on this web page.

Fort Ward’s Maclura pomifera Tree

Feature photo: The arranged fruits of the Osage Orange tree into a happy face caught my attention and consequently initiated my interest to write this article.

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

Osage Orange has a tough “stomp-proof” fruit that will not be crushed with foot pressure. It is grapefruit sized, about 4 inches in diameter, with an outer surface that looks like “brains.”

In December 2021, while on a trail review for the Birdability website (, I came across a most unusual tree. I had traveled throughout the US and the World, and walked many trails in Fairfax County, but never have I seen this type of tree. It’s commonly called an Osage Orange tree, but also goes by many other names, including its scientific name Maclura pomifera. As I approached it, I saw grapefruit sized yellow fruits on the ground beneath it, with a pile of them arrange in a happy face configuration, as if beckoning me toward them. I looked at those fruits in greater detail, and I thought to myself that the exotic fruit looked like brains, because of the convoluted nature of it.

The bark of the tree has scaly ridges with irregular furrows.

I asked a passer-by if he knew what kind of tree it was. He told me it was a “Monkey Tree,” so that became the basis of my internet search. Indeed, the fruits are also known as “Monkey balls” and “Monkey brains.” The Osage Orange tree is originally native to parts of Texas and Oklahoma. Today the tree has spread to much of the United States and Canada. Male and female trees have different flowers. Only the female tree bears fruit, but it is not edible. The early settlers of America had many uses for this tree and a lot of information on the tree and it uses can be found on the internet. The bark pattern on the tree has a characteristic deeply furrowed, scaly nature. Its twigs have thorns.

Fort Ward is a pleasant place to have a walk, with many ADA amenities. It also has a small museum on its grounds.

The location of the Osage Orange tree is just beyond the historic gate. Notice the Corp of Engineer’s insignia logo (castle) on top of the gate.




North American Butterfly Association(NABA) Butterfly Count, July 23rd

Image: Courtesy of The Clifton Institute

Saturday, July 23, 2022
9:00am – 3:00pm
Where: The Clifton Institute
6712 Blantyre Road, Warrenton, VA
Cost: Free
For more information and Registration click here.

Every year community scientists help count the butterflies in 15-mile-diameter circles all around the country and contribute their data to the North American Butterfly Association. This summer The Clifton Institute will host their 27th annual butterfly count and celebrate their 20th year contributing their data to NABA. Butterfly enthusiasts of all levels of experience are welcome! If you feel like you don’t know many butterflies, this is a great way to learn and it’s always helpful to have more eyes pointing out butterflies.

Stream Monitoring: Citizen Science & Training Opportunities

Photo by J. Quinn


Below is a list of the various Stream Monitoring workshops and other monitoring opportunities in the area throughout June and July.


Accotink Creek Stream Monitoring

When: Saturday, June 11, 9:30 – 11:30am

Where: Accotink Creek, Springfield

Join Friends of Accotink Creek to monitor the health of the stream. For more information and to register, click here.


Little Hunting Creek Stream Monitoring Workshop

When: Sunday, June 12, 10:00am-12:30pm

Where: Paul Spring Stream Valley Park, Alexandria

This workshop was originally scheduled for April but was rained out… twice! Take this opportunity to join us as we visit the Paul Spring Branch of Little Hunting Creek for the first time in many years! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.


Sugarland Run Stream Monitoring Workshop

When: Tuesday, June 21, 4:00-6:30pm

Where: Sugarland Run Stream Valley Park, Herndon

This site is close to one of the largest great blue heron rookeries in the area at Kincora along Route 28, and seeing these beautiful birds along Sugarland Run isn’t uncommon. What a nice bonus to complement Sugarland Run’s big crayfish and other mighty macros! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.


Pohick Creek Stream Monitoring Workshop

When: Sunday, July 17, 10:00am-12:30pm

Where: Hidden Pond Nature Center, Springfield

This is the workshop site of a recently-retired stream monitor and is currently up for adoption. Come join us at this beautiful county park! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.


Holmes Run Stream Monitoring Workshop

When: Saturday, July 23, 9:00-11:30am

Where: Holmes Run Stream Valley Park, Falls Church

This workshop site is ae easily-accessible location just downstream of Lake Barcroft. Come explore this beautiful spot in the Cameron Run watershed! Space is limited, please register for the workshop here.

More Training and Stream Monitoring Opportunities


The Northern Virginia Water and Soil Conservation District(NVSWCD) is very excited to contribute their stream data to state and national datasets. If anyone would like to see data from all the NVSWCD regional stream monitoring team’s active sites, the NVSWCD organization can be found on the Clean Water Hub. Keep in touch with NVSWCD on our Facebook and Instagram.

How to Invite Hummingbirds to Your Backyard

Article and photos by FMN Barbara Saffir

THEY’RE BAAAACCCCCKKK!  Flying fairies — ruby-throated hummingbirds — returned to Virginia in April so now it’s time to invite some to your house or apartment.  It’s easy and cheap.  Just serve up some irresistible food and an inviting home.  That means a clean hummer feeder, native plants, and nearby trees for them to eat, nest, and snuggle in.  A water source is a huge plus for all birds and critters, especially to help them survive summer’s searing heat.  And it’s also paramount to avoid insecticides in your yard since bugs are the main course and high-octane fuel for these feisty, flying jewels that can beat their wings about 53 times each second, according to Cornell’s respected “All About Birds” website.  Ruby-throats are the only hummers that nest east of the Mississippi.

First the flowers.  Even if you can’t plant salvia, cardinal flower, bee balm, coral honeysuckle, trumpet vine, or other hummer-magnets in time, or if you live in an apartment with a pint-sized balcony, you can still buy them in containers.  It’s best to place them near your hummingbird feeders so they can slurp some sugar water for desert after gobbling down their bug buffet.  Cornell says they especially love the bugs that humans sometimes hate, including disease-carrying mosquitoes, gnats, fruit flies, small bees, and spiders.  And your local big box store is NOT the ideal place to buy hummer plants. Native plant nurseries appear to be the best sources for hummer-preferred flowers.  When you go shopping, if you can, chose the plants with butterflies or hummers already feeding from them. And gobs of other wildflowers and flowering trees seduce hummingbirds, not just the ones you typically hear about.  Virginia Tech offers some suggestions below.

Second, the feeders.  All you need is a $4 hummingbird feeder (see below) and some plain white

granulated sugar.  But NEVER hang any hummingbird feeders unless you’re willing to clean them every couple of days in the heat because dirty ones can form mold, fungus, bacteria, and fermentation, which can hurt or kill your hummers.  The National Wildlife Federation says you need to refill the nectar “as often as every two days when summer temperatures remain above 90 degrees F.  Rinse the feeder thoroughly—without soap—before refilling. Clean it once a month with a very mild, diluted bleach solution.”  It also helps to hang the feeders from a ($4 and up) ant moat to prevent ants from monopolizing the nectar.

Don’t add anything to Audubon’s standard nectar recipe: “The best (and least expensive) solution for your feeder is a 1:4 solution of refined white sugar to tap water. That’s ¼ cup of sugar in 1 cup of water. Bring the solution to a boil, then let it cool before filling the feeder.”
Hummers love water but ordinary bird baths are too big for little ruby-throats, which only reach 3.7 inches long and weigh 0.1-0.2 ounces, roughly the weight of a penny.  Instead, they love to take showers in misting sprinklers and they sometimes flock to bubbling fountains, says “The Spruce” website.
Male hummers (only adult males have full red throats and they only appear red in the sun due to the feather structure) start to return to Florida and Central America by August. But keep your feeders up through October because some young males and females are hungry stragglers. And when autumn rolls around, offer orange jewelweed wildflowers to your hummers.  If you can’t wrangle up a supply, just stroll along the W&OD Trail by Hunter Mill Road or any other trail or garden with lush jewelweed and if you listen and watch carefully, I almost guarantee that you can find some happy hummingbirds.

Geology Adventures: Man-Made Slag

Feature photo:  Slag Nuggets line this railroad track near Willoughby Brook, High Bridge, NJ

Article and photos by FMN Stephen Tzikas

Not too far from Fairfax County is geologic treasure. Engineers love it. It is a by-product of iron ore smelting, one of the oldest chemical engineering processes. The by-product is called slag and it is unique and beautiful.

A few years ago I stopped at the Burden Iron Works in Troy, NY on my way to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) for Reunion and Homecoming not far from the iron works. The iron works are not a big tourist attraction, so I had to call the curator for an appointment. The meeting I had with curator was just grand. We talked at least a couple hours on the engineering history of the area which included RPI. Before leaving he took me outside to walk the perimeter of the iron works

Catoctin Furnace Slag Nugget Sample 1.  Vesicles pockmark this brownish and green tone slag sample.

and told me about slag. Slag is the rock remaining after iron is extracted from the ore. The property and surrounding area has some slag scattered around. He told me it can usually be found easily along a building perimeter because that’s where it’s thrown by ground keepers who cut grass and don’t like hitting it with the mowers. He gave me a few pieces of the century-plus old slag and I finally departed.

Later, at the Jonsson-Rowland Science Center building at RPI, while looking at the geologic collection located there, a graduate student came out of his research lab and I struck up a conversation with him on the Burden Iron Works. He quickly went back into his lab to pull out a slag sample from the iron works in which some residue ore in a large slag sample formed a colorful blue glass mix with the ore. Impressed, I have ever since included old iron furnace stops on my road trips. If you keep in mind that slag samples are likely to be located along perimeter building ruins, you’ll find interesting nuggets. One especially pleasing location is the Lock Ridge Furnace Museum if you are passing through the Allentown, PA area. There are literally thousands of slag samples all over the grounds. It is much rarer to find slag samples with colorful shades of glass in them, but if you are curious, do a google image search on “colored iron slag” to see what I mean. Some slag samples can also be magnetic, and the color of a slag sample is due to the different mixes of elements and leftover metals in it.

Catoctin Furnace Slag Nugget Sample 2. Vesicles and Blebs are found in this gray slag sample.

Iron smelting was a big industry in the 18th and 19th century America, and you can usually find industrial furnace ruins from that period everywhere that had settlements. My stops at old furnaces usually take me through Pennsylvania on my trips to NJ and NY. However, we have local furnace ruins too. One nearby is the Catoctin Furnace in Thurmont, MD. This is a 19th century iron works and the website can be found at

Slag samples could appear in a variety of other places too. The iron industry of yesteryear produced so much slag waste, the industry found uses for it. Iron ore slag is generally safe. It is just ore rock with the iron removed. While hiking in High Bridge, NJ one day, I came across large amounts of it lining the railroad tracks (along Buffalo Hollow Road near Willoughby Brook, and just off of Cregar Road). The slag made a suitable material cushioning the track area from the extended environment. Normally, one might see other forms of crushed stone gravel around railroad tracks. If you come across railroad tracks in your nature trail excursions, take a look at whether the tracks have stone ballast in the track bed, and whether it is slag.

If I have interested you to build a slag collection, please be aware that some parks might have rules requiring visitors not to remove anything from a site. Such rules, if they exist, are usually posted so visitors know. Now that you are aware, keep your eyes open for interesting geology on the ground at old furnace ruins.


Native Groundcovers and Trees: The Perfect Pairing!

Photo and article by Plant NOVA Natives

Native groundcovers are becoming increasingly popular, for good reason: even if they have minimal time for gardening, people want to use native plants to support our local birds and butterflies. To avoid invasive non-native groundcovers such as English Ivy, Vinca, Yellow Archangel, and Japanese Pachysandra, they turn to native plants for the same landscaping benefits without the damage to our trees and the rest of the environment.

Equally popular among time-pressed residents are native trees, which are similarly easy to install and which have benefits that far exceed those of any other plants. Not only does the great mass of tree leaves and roots provide food and homes for birds, soak up stormwater, and cool the air, the insects that evolved with native plants are adapted to the chemical make-up of those plants and are able to co-exist peacefully with them. An American Beech tree, for example, is the host plant to 126 species of lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), Hickory to 200 species, Black Cherry around 450 species, and native oaks over 500 species. (The numbers for non-native trees are in the single digits or even zero.)

Over 30 species of locally native plants make excellent groundcovers, with options available for any growing condition. Several are evergreen, and many have the bonus of a month or two of colorful flowers. Some form a tight mat on the ground, while others such as ferns and White Wood Aster provide a taller look. Native sedges provide even more options. Some sedges make a beautiful substitute for the invasive Liriope, some look more like a grass that never needs mowing, and still others sport spiky seed heads that add a touch of quirkiness to the garden. Our local conventional garden centers are starting to carry some of these plants, and many more can be found at native plant garden centers.

Encircling native trees with native groundcovers makes eminent sense. Turf grass does poorly under trees because of the limited light. Trees do not appreciate lawn chemicals, not to mention the risk of injury from lawnmowers and string trimmers. A harmful but common practice, especially in commercial areas, is to pile layer after layer of mulch in a “mulch volcano” around trees and spray it with herbicides to prevent grass and weed growth. Not only does this poison the soil, but mulch that is touching the trunk will rot the bark, and compacted mulch prevents rainwater from reaching the roots. Arborist wood chips, which allow the water to run through, are an improvement over shredded bark mulch if applied properly and can protect the tree as it gets established. But in the long run, why not use nature’s alternative to a toxic mulch bed, which is to allow the fallen leaves to remain in place and add a “green mulch” made up of native plants? The trees and the soil will thank you for it.

That Blue Frog Craze! Again?

All photos by Jerry Nissley

We all remember the ‘blue frog’ craze from last summer, right?

Normal color Green Tree Frog

Well I certainly do. All the specimens I found were axanthic green tree frogs (Hyla cinerea). But this is a new year folks! Today I found a bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) exhibiting these traits. I get excited about stuff like this and I always like to share my excitement with others. Here is a quick overview of what I know. There is a ton of published information out there if you want to dig deeper.

Type 1

Axanthism in its basic description is a genetic mutation that inhibits the animal’s ability to produce yellow pigments. There are three types of axanthism in amphibians: 1. complete to partial blue coloration due to a lack of yellow pigmentation, 2.

Type 2

complete or partial dark coloration, and 3. normal coloration with black eyes. These are not distinct categories, and there can be amphibians that have a combination of these.

Type one is most common in the frog family (Ranidea) which is also the family that happens to be most commonly affected by axanthism. In my research, I could not find a community consensus as to why axanthism occurs in amphibians; whether it is genetic or environmental. There are persuasive arguments on both sides.

Bullfrog with blue nose

Axanthism seems to be most prevalent in North America and is more common in Northern regions; but if last summer is a trend, it is sliding quickly into the southeastern states. Axanthism is most common in frogs, with salamanders and newts having almost no cases.
So be on the look out for this very cool frog morph – it’s a eureka moment to spot one!

National Invasive Species Information Center (NISIC) and The Website

Photo: Autumn olive, twigs/shoots with thorns and leaves in April, James H. Miller; USDA, Forest Service

The National Invasive Species Information Center (NISIC) was established in 2005 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) National Agricultural Library (NAL) to meet the information needs of users, including the National Invasive Species Council (Council).

The website, is managed by NISIC. This website serves as a reference and educational gateway to information, organizations, and services about invasive species.

Below is an outline overview of National Invasive Species Information Center (NISIC)’s site content. This overview is not exhaustive.  Please take some time to explore and navigate through the various sections. The Species Profile List section includes both common and scientific species names.  It also provides users with links to photos and other information.

Invasive Species Intro:

  • About Invasive Species
  • What are invasive species
  • Federal Government’s Response (Including National Management Plan)

Species Information:

  • What are Species Profiles?
  • Terrestrial Invasives
  • Aquatic Invasives
  • Species Profiles List
  • Species Not Established in U.S.


  • Resources by Location
  • Resources by Subject or Type
  • Resource Search


  • All News and Events
  • Emerging Issues
  • Conferences and Events
  • Federal Register Notices
  • Newsmedia

What’s New

Protecting the Chesapeake from aquatic invaders

By Kathryn Reshetiloff.

This article and the accompanying photos are reproduced with permission from the Chesapeake Bay Journal.

Red-eared slider

The red-eared slider, a popular aquarium species native to the southern and southwestern U.S., is spreading to northern states, helped along by people who release them when they grow too big. (Robert J. Sharp/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Across the nation, invasive, nonnative plants and animals are becoming a larger threat to our waterways. And the Chesapeake Bay watershed is not immune.

These unwelcomed species didn’t just show up on their own. Most were introduced, either intentionally or accidently, by people. The possibility of these species multiplying in our waters — and eating, displacing or infecting native aquatic life — is a real concern to natural resources managers and citizens.

All living things have evolved to thrive in specific places on Earth. Local climate, geology, soil, available water, nutrients and food all determine which plants and animals can live in a particular ecosystem.

Species that have evolved in a particular place are considered native; those that arrive from elsewhere are considered nonnative — but are not necessarily invasive. That distinction belongs to plants and animals that threaten native species, often by crowding them out or establishing themselves more quickly in disturbed land, in the case of plants, or outcompeting them for food, in the case of animals.

Northern snakehead

The northern snakehead, a native of Asia, was first discovered in the Bay watershed two decades ago and now seems to be firmly established. (Brian Gratwicke/CC BY 2.0)


Invasives may also have an advantage over natives because of a lack of natural controls, such as predators or disease. Conversely, invasive herbivores and carnivores may eat native species, and invasive plants could introduce a disease deadly to natives.

Invasive species damage natural systems by disrupting the intricate web of life for native plants, animals and microorganisms, including those that are rare or close to extinction. Once invasives have consumed all of the food sources or destroyed the habitat for other wildlife, they move on to the next suitable site.

They are often spread — unknowingly — by people while boating, fishing or taking part in other recreational activities. Invasive “hitchhikers” attach to boat bottoms, motors and other items, then are transported to new waterways.

Dumping unwanted aquarium fish and plants and releasing unused live bait are another way they are introduced.

Other invaders arrive in the discharged ballast water of ships arriving from all over the world.

Invasives, like the zebra mussel, reproduce and spread quickly, wreaking havoc on native wildlife, ruining boat engines and large water-intake systems, and making lakes and rivers unusable for boaters and swimmers.

Purple loosestrife

Purple loosestrife, a wetland plant brought to North America in the 1800s as an ornamental, is aggressively displacing native marsh species. (St. Arnualer Wiesen/CC 0)

Another infamous invader is the nutria, a voracious, almost beaver size, rodent native to South America. An aggressive trapping and hunting program has all but eradicated them from the Eastern Shore, where they had chewed their way through marshes, accelerating the loss of thousands of acres of wetlands.

The list goes on. The northern snakehead fish, a native of Asia introduced in 2000, is essentially out of control. Blue and flathead catfish, natives of the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio river watersheds compete with Bay species for food and habitat. The spotted lanternfly, spreading like wildfire through the region, is killing trees and devastating orchards and vineyards. Purple loosestrife, an invasive wetland plant, was introduced as an ornamental plant in the 1800s and now dominates marshes. Even the seemingly innocent red-eared slider, a semi-aquatic turtle native to the southern and southwestern U.S. — a very popular pet — is invading northerly states because many owners set it free when it outgrows its aquarium.

Once an invasive species has a foothold, the cost — in terms of degraded natural areas, loss of native wildlife or control efforts — can be incalculably high. In addition, other economic resources and lifestyle choices are lost. Recreational activities, such as swimming, fishing, boating, or wildlife-watching are affected, as are the sources of income associated with these activities: the seafood industry, sales of outdoor equipment and clothing, hunting and fishing licenses, guide services, travel and tourism, and service stations for boats and automobiles.


The Asian spotted lanternfly first showed up in Pennsylvania in 2014, but it has since spread southward into Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia, ruining vineyards and orchards. (Rhododendrites/CC BY-SA 4.0)

What can you do to prevent the spread of invasive aquatic species? The overarching rule of thumb is this: Never release a plant or animal in an environment if you are not certain where it came from. Bait can come from anywhere, and it is believed that rusty crayfish, a very troublesome invader from the Ohio River watershed, has established itself in the Bay region mostly as discarded bait.

Some organisms are so small you may not even realize they are hitching a ride with you. So it’s important to follow this checklist every time you leave any body of water. Examine your boat, trailers, clothing, shoes and gear, then:

  • Remove any plants, fish or animals.
  • Remove all mud, dirt and plant fragments. The larvae of an animal, perhaps too tiny to see, can live in mud, dirt, sand and plant fragments.
  • Eliminate water from equipment before moving it.
  • Clean and dry anything that was in contact with water (boats, trailers, equipment, clothing) before using it in another waterway.

The Chesapeake Bay Program estimates that approximately 200 invasive species have established themselves in the watershed. To learn about invaders in your area, contact your state’s natural resources or environmental protection agency. One of the most comprehensive and user-friendly online resources for invasive species is the USDA’s National Invasive Species Information Center, at

Kathryn Reshetiloff, a Bay Journal columnist, is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.