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Thoughts on Trees from the perspective of a central Virginia farmer

I love trees, especially mature, healthy, indigenous trees.  When we clean up property, we do not remove significant or outstanding trees.  In fact, we prefer to remove unhealthy, invasive, or problematic trees.

For those of you interested in trees in central Virginia (Culpeper, Madison, Rapahannock, Orange) or the Virginia Piedmont, this web page will offer a basic primer as to the major types of trees in the area.


Within forests of western Culpeper and Madison counties, the most common oaks white oak, red oak, black oak, and chestnut oak.  My personal favorite is the white oak.  It is very easy to recognize older white oaks by their scaly white bark.  The bark is not naturally scaly, but white oaks are very susceptible to a non-damaging fungus that gives them their unique appearance.  Click here for a good picture of white oak bark.  White oaks are also the longest-lived oak, and there are many uses for the wood.  Historically, ships and whiskey barrels were built out of white oak.  All oak makes excellent firewood, but white oak is my favorite wood for grilling.  Fresh white oak has a very sweet smell that provides a distinct flavor to beef cooked over it. 

Chestnut oaks also have very distinct bark patterns and leaves, although it is possible for amateurs to confuse mature chestnut oak bark with tulip poplars.  With a little bit of practice, the differences become apparent.

Yellow Poplar

Poplar is among the most common tree in the Underwood Farms forests.  Most poplars around here are tulip poplars, and it is easy to notice their large, attractive flowers in mid-spring.  Poplar is deciduous, meaning that it loses its leaves each winter, but it is a rapid-growing softwood.  Land around here that has been regularly logged, but not reseeded in pine, frequently has a predominance of poplar in it because poplars grow so quickly.

If you are a homeowner looking to have large, impressive trees with pretty foliage in a 3-8 year period, a good solution would be to plant poplars along with a variety of maples.

Poplar wood’s primary uses are furniture (non-exposed parts) and house siding and framing (the wood is more expensive than pine, but generally straighter and less knotty).  Poplars can grow up to 200 feet high, and they generally can live 200-300 years in the right environment.

Poplars grow very differently in the open than in the woods.  In a forest, poplars will have long, straight trunks that can be more than 30 feet high before the first limbs.  In the open, poplars have limbs that will grow almost down to the ground.  Although they are large and some people like their look, I am not a ardent fan of open-field poplars, although I have many of them.  Open field poplars are prone to lose limbs in storms, and they probably typically have a 50-100 year lifespan in the open.  One amazing exception is the poplar next to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home.  This poplar is now approaching 200 years in age, and it appears to be in the best shape of any old open-space poplar I know.  Then again, it is tied off in many directions and does have a lightning rod on it.

Ailanthus trees (Tree of Heaven) (locally known as Paper Wood Trees)

I hate ailanthus trees!  It took me a little over a year of farming in Virginia to develop my hatred of ailanthus.  Ailanthus trees are everywhere, they are ugly, they are non-indigenous, they are useless in terms of commercial value, they fall easily, their short-lived, and they damage existing, healthy, native hardwoods.  For those of you in the area or that have ever visited central Virginia, Ailanthus trees grow along the banks of Hwy 29 from Gainesville through Charlottesville.  They have grey bark, and when you see stands of hundreds of small trees on the side of a highway bank, odds are that you are looking at Ailanthus trees.

I hope to expand my Piedmont Virginia Tree thoughts from a farmer’s perspective in the future.

Underwood Farms

Culpeper County, Virginia
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