Witches Broom

It was a chilly day back in January, 2015, when my siblings and I received an email from our sister, the Curator of Collections at Historic Jamestown in Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World. On this historic stretch of land, she spied a dense mass hanging from a loblolly pine tree (Pinus taeda) on the edge of the James River.

“Can someone please tell me what that almost round ball of living needles in the tree is?” she wrote.

A brother answered, “Mistletoe?”  A sister answered, “Do you think a squirrel is living in there?”

I was fairly certain what it was…. “It’s a witches broom!” And I was excited to see it. A witches broom is an abnormal growth in a tree and can occur on a number of conifers and deciduous trees but seems to be most often spotted in pines. It is caused by numerous stress factors…. fungi, bacteria, viruses, mites, genetic mutations and several other factors and they can originate on different sections of a tree. This one developed on a terminal bud of a lower limb of the pine.


Most people just prune out the infected branches in their landscape but there are a number of folks who search for these genetic mutations in pines to propagate dwarf conifers. These witches broom hunters will harvest the growth by climbing a tree and cutting it out, using a shotgun to snap the limb, or by cutting down the entire tree. With a little luck and expertise, the broom can produce slow-growing and dense dwarf trees either by grafting to rootstock or from seeds.

At the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh North Carolina, dwarf loblolly pines have been successfully grown from seeds in cones from witches brooms. Planted from 1964 to 1967, the dense, slow-growing dwarf loblolly pines have ornamental value. Hard to find, but the ‘Nana’ seedlings are available.

“Can you reach it?” I asked my sister.

“No, it’s too high up and over the river.”

“Well, keep an eye on it…” I said. “If it falls, let me know.”

And so she watched the mass for 3 years and sent me pictorial updates through all the seasons and all weather conditions.

photo 1

In this sunny day photo below, I could see the presence of pine cones in the mass… a good sign as seeds from the cones have a better chance of developing into dwarf plants.


Last week the witches broom finally fell. A colleague at work, also keeping an eye on the growth, discovered it and reported it to my sister… who called the local cooperative extension agent…. who put the word out.

The broom was happily collected by Bradley Roberts, Curator of Herbaceous Plants at the Norfolk Botanical Gardens and a member of the American Conifer Society. He will try to propagate it.

Another fun horticulture adventure ends for us. Now we wish all the best to Bradley as he begins his adventure in propagating Historic Jamestown dwarf loblolly pines!


Boning up on History!

I’ve been on the road recently… first to Washington DC with two sisters and some of their family to experience the exhibit Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th-Century Chesapeake at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

The Smithsonian’s forensic anthropologists Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide, developed the Written in Bone exhibit after an extensive study of 17th-century bone biographies in the Chesapeake area, including those of colonists barely surviving at Jamestown VA, and those living in the wealthy settlement of St. Mary’s City MD. Newly added to the exhibit is Jane, the forensic facial reconstruction of a young girl who did not survive the ‘starving time’ at Jamestown with the forensic evidence confirming the ‘harsh reality’ that she was consumed by colonists after death.

And, ahem, please permit me to brag just a little. Little sis, curator at Historic Jamestowne, Jamestown Rediscovery, was asked by Doug Owsley to take an active part as an advisor for the study and the exhibit. For years a huge chunk of her time was spent on the project with meetings and trips from Williamsburg to DC. The exhibit opened in February, 2009 and millions have been able to learn much about the earliest inhabitants through bones: men and women, white, black and Native American. All of my siblings have been guided through the exhibit with sis…except for one sister and me. What a treat it was for the two of us with other family members to finally experience a journey through time with one so scholarly as my sis.

If you plan to be in the DC area, take the time to experience the exhibit for it is slated to close in January 2014.

We chose one of the busiest weekends of the year… the July 4th weekend. The city was hot and steamy. Water was being sold by enterprising individuals on almost every corner. Throngs of visitors bought water as they crowded sidewalks, buses, subways, museums, restaurants. I was amazed by the number of families with small children… surprisingly well-behaved and interested in what they were seeing. Rarely did I experience a meltdown by a little one… although I was close to having one a few times.

Visits to other sites such as Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival 2013, One World, Many Voices, and Old Town Alexandria topped the touring events of our long, hot weekend.