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Seed orchard helps make Pa. greener

March 25, 2000|By RICHARD F. BELISLE

SOUTH MOUNTAIN, Pa. - Stands of white birch, Austrian pines, Japanese and European larch, a hybrid cross between pitch and loblolly pines, and some stunted bald cypress that barely survive the cold South Mountain climate are yielding a new crop of seeds each year to repopulate Pennsylvania's woodlands.

The trees grow at the South Mountain Seed Orchard, one of two run by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. The other one, much larger, is near State College, Pa.

"I don't know why the cypress are here. This is about as far north as they can grow," said Phil Varndell, a forester at the 86,000-acre Michaux State Forest headquarters on U.S. 30 east of Chambersburg, Pa. Michaux strides parts of Franklin, Adams, York and Cumberland counties and is among Pennsylvania's 2.1 million acres of woodlands.

A 26-year veteran at Michaux, Varndell, 51, also serves as seed coordinator.

Collecting seeds every year at the South Mountain Seed Orchard is only part of his duties. He also collects black walnuts, red oak acorns and other seed varieties, including black locust, white ash and tulip poplar, for planting in the state's Penn Nursery, also near State College.

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Varndell said the forestry service had a seed orchard near Penn State's Mont Alto campus until the early 1970s. It was established about a century ago for the state's Mont Alto Nursery, which also no longer exists.

Varndell is a Mont Alto forestry school graduate.

When seedlings in the Penn Nursery reach two years old and 8 to 12 inches tall, they are replanted in state woodlands or sold to private wood lot owners.

It costs $150 for 1,000 trees, said Bruce W. Kile, a service forester at Michaux.

"We grow about 8 million trees a year," he said.

Varndell collects red oak acorns and black walnuts wherever he finds them - in public parks, school grounds and even private property, with permission. Collecting black walnuts is easy, he said.

"We put on gloves and pick them off the ground. Two of us can fill a truck in no time," he said.

Picking acorns off the ground takes ingenuity and the use of a device Varndell calls the "bag-a-nut." It looks a little like an upright vacuum cleaner. When he pushes it along the grass, it picks up acorns and conveys them to a container in back of the machine.

"They use these things to pick up pecans down south, but it works good on acorns," he said.

White pine and Norway spruce are two of the state's most popular varieties because the grow fast - about 30 years from seedling to mature tree, Varndell said.

State-grown trees end up in many different places. White pine and spruce are planted and harvested for pulp wood. Red oaks are used to reforest harvested or burned-over areas.

"They're a high quality tree good to plant for future harvesting, for wildlife habitat and erosion control," Varndell said.

In some places farm fields that were once forests are being turned back into forests, he said.

"There are places where they never should have made fields in the first place," he said.

The pine hybrids at the South Mountain Seed Orchard also do well, Varndell said.

Loblolly pines are southern trees that grow fast. Pitch pines are slower growing, winter hardy northern trees. Crossing the two results in a fast-growing pine that can stand Pennsylvania winters, Varndell said.

White birch are considered to be a pioneer species which grow in poor soil. They're used to reclaim land that has been strip-mined for coal, Varndell said.

The South Mountain orchard was recently renamed the Ralph E. Brock Seed Orchard in salute to a Schuylkill County native believed to have been the first black American to enroll in the Pennsylvania Forestry Academy in Mont Alto. He was one of six students in his 1906 graduating class.

Brock is believed to be the first black American to get a forestry education, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He was superintendent of the Mont Alto State Forest Nursery from 1906 to 1911, when he left the state to work in private forestry where he specialized in estate gardens, orchards and landscaping.

Brock died in 1959 at age 79.

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