New twist added to Conifer Trail at Blandy Farm

Posted: October 24, 2013

The Winchester Star

Carrie Whitacre, assistant curator for the State Arboretum of Virginia at Blandy Experimental Farm, and T’ai Roulston, curator, walk along the Conifer Trail on the grounds of the arboretum. The property has about 1,000 conifers. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
RIGHT: This is a cone from a Cedar of Lebanon, one of the 100 varieties of conifers at the arboretum. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)
ABOVE: T’ai Roulston, curator at the State Arboretum of Virginia, shows the five-needle bundle of the Himalayan white pine along the Conifer Trail at Blandy Farm.

BOYCE — You can see its branches etched in fossils from the dinosaur age.

Or you can see the living, breathing tree in the State Arboretum of Virginia at Blandy Experimental Farm near Boyce.

The dawn redwood is one of the specimens on the Conifer Trail, a longtime arboretum attraction that now boasts a self-guided tour using smartphone technology.

The towering tree, once thought to be extinct but found growing in China in the 1940s, is just one of many conifers at the arboretum.

Blandy has hundreds of varieties of conifers among the thousands of trees planted there, according to arboretum curator T’ai Roulston.

The self-guided tour of the conifer specimens begins south of the Quarters Building with a tall trio of Japanese umbrella pine, bald cypress and an incense cedar.

Visitors can pick up a brochure at the Conifer Trail that shows the path and lists the trees. In front of certain trees, guests can use the camera in their smartphone and snap the Quick Response code on the plaque to visit a special section of the arboretum’s website and hear about a certain tree.

For the incense cedar, a young man’s voice tells listeners the tree has a fragrant aroma that should remind older family members of the No. 2 pencils from their childhood, which were made from that type of wood.

Nine trees in the arboretum have audio recordings, Roulston said, adding that seven of them are on the Conifer Trail.

“We held auditions” to recruit voices for the recordings, he said. Nine people were picked from the 100 who volunteered “to be the voices of our trees.”

While most people think of conifers as being evergreen, several species are deciduous and drop their needles each winter.

The bald cypress is one, said Roulston, and the dawn redwood is another.

One tree on the Conifer Trail — the Fraser fir — will look familiar.

“It’s the most popular Christmas tree, wherever people can find it,” Roulston said.

A native of the eastern United States, Fraser firs hold their needles for a long time, he said.

The tree is native to the southern Appalachian mountains, but like another local tree, the balsam fir, it has been targeted by a pest from Asia — the wooly adelgid, which has damaged many acres of conifers in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Another Christmas tree favorite, the white fir, or Abies concolor, is found in the western United States and is noted for the citrus scent of its needles.

The Conifer Trail also boasts several specimens of Norway spruce with an almost “weeping” structure to the branches. This is the most popular Christmas tree in Europe, Roulston said.

The blue atlas cedar has a pretty shade to its needles and its horizontal limbs, starting close to the ground.

The Cedar of Lebanon, “highly referenced in the Bible,” according to Roulston, was used in shipbuilding in ancient times and even in embalming.

As the visitor skirts a stone wall, two American giants come into view: the Douglas fir and the Ponderosa pine.

In this country, only the redwoods and the sequoias grow taller than the Douglas, which is why it has been used for ship masts, dock pilings and railroad ties.

The pine, a dominant tree in the west, can rise above 200 feet, and its bark smells like vanilla, Roulston said. Blandy’s specimen is the record-holder for the tallest Ponderosa in Virginia.

Eastern hemlocks have the ability to tolerate heavy shade and still germinate and slowly grow.

“If you see an old hemlock, you know that’s a very old forest,” Roulston said.

The Himalayan white pine has long, soft needles that grow in groups of five. Its upright cones have whirled tops that look like ice cream cones.

Near the end of the Conifer Trail is a planting of Arizona cypress, the gray-green foliage a sharp contrast to the yellow-green of the dawn redwood beside it.

This drought-tolerant native of the American Southwest — another Virginia state record tree — was a favorite of the arboretum’s first director, Dr. Orland White, who planted some of them there in the 1930s.

After his death, White’s cremated remains were scattered among the trees he loved, Roulston said.

To take a virtual tour of the Conifer Trail, visit the arboretum’s website

— Contact Val Van Meter at