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TRAIL GUIDE, written by Lyle Estill


We have been trying to grow chestnuts for over twenty years. While our endeavor has lead mostly to heartbreak and disappointment, we finally have several trees bearing fruit each year. These trees are adolescent, bearing about ten pounds of nuts each, but this number will go up as the tree matures. By the time we are dead and gone, someone will no doubt wonder who the visionary genius was who planted chestnut trees.

This particular tree is a cross between the American and Chinese chestnut species and is representative of gene crossing efforts to conserve what is left of the native Chestnut variety.trailCHESTNUTS

American chestnut once thrived and was the dominant tree species in parts of Appalachia. Due to an accidental introduction of Asian bark fungus in 1904 the spatial scope of American chestnut was reduced to essentially nothing whereas the prior range encompassed much of the lands east of the Mississippi.

While it is believed that 100 or less large American chestnuts exist in their former range the species can be found in pockets as planted by settlers in the west or in small new growth groves in the former range. An American chestnut is an exceedingly rare sight; comparable to finding a needle within a haystack.

Although small groves and stands are occasionally found within the former range of the American chestnut, crossed varieties such as this tree are much more common because of resistance to the deadly Asian bark fungus conferred by the genetic stock that coevolved with the Asian bark fungus.



This apple orchard was planted for the Fair Game Beverage Company—which is one of the denizens of the Plant. They use apples for Fair Game’s Apple Tipper and for their Apple Brandy.

The apple tree is a deciduous variety whose wild ancestors hail from Central Asia. It has been cultivated for thousands of years and is perhaps the first tree that humans intentionally grew for their own uses. Over 7,500 cultivars of apples exist; a cultivar of a plant can be thought of somewhat like a dog breed in that it is selected for desirable characteristics and then maintained through selective breeding. Different cultivars produce apples that vary widely in size, taste and color, as time has progressed so has the quality of new apple cultivars in regards to characteristics such as size, shape and uniformity although some people prefer the taste of older cultivars.

trail APPLESApple trees grow quite large when planted as seeds but the favored method of propagation for domesticated apples is grafting. The process of grafting occurs by inserting the tissue of one plant into another so that the vascular tissues of the two plants join. Essentially a sharpened branch or limb of the plant that is to produce the fruit is stuck into an opening of the root stock tree and then the wound is wrapped so that it may heal and the end result is one plant sharing vascular tissue. Together the two plants become one and the separate parts are called the scion and stock parts. Grafting is favored because apples don’t breed true to seed meaning that an apple seedling can be almost nothing like its parents. Commonly a dwarf rootstock is used as to limit the size of the tree.

Within the many cultivars of apples there is great diversity, different varieties cross pollinate and ripen at different times of the spring with some storing better than others or producing a higher yield than others. Apples are susceptible to a variety of pests and diseases but modern cultivars in addition to being more uniformly shaped tend to better withstand these problems.

Since apple’s can’t self pollinate keeping them in an orchard setting allows more readily and reliably for the necessary cross pollination to occur so that the trees may bear fruit. If one planted a single apple tree without other apple trees in close proximity, pollination rates and yields would be very low. Orchards are a good way to improve consistency of yield when growing fruit trees while also maintaining various cultivars.

In New York state there exists an apple orchard like no other, it is not intended primarily to bear edible fruit but rather it is a gene bank of 2,500 different varieties of apples. The different cultivars come from all over the world and are laid out in pairs to maintain the different varieties. Since commercial apples only represent a small portion of the species and the number of varieties for sale has been shrinking, this orchard represents an earnest attempt to maintain as much genetic material as possible so as to safeguard against pests and pathogens without resorting to harsh chemicals. The hopes are that by maintaining enough genetic diversity breeders will be able to find varieties that account for some of the problems and pests that commercial apple’s face. This is an excellent example of sustainability put to use within a large-scale context of research and scientific study instead of relying completely on chemicals.

The story of Johnny Appleseed is well known to all, as a folk hero he traveled the frontiers of the Midwest and planted apple trees everywhere that he went. Johnny was always a few years ahead of the settlers and lore has it that he planted trees willy-nilly but reality is a little different. As he would go Johnny Appleseed would plant nurseries and leave them in the care of an acquaintance that would sell the trees. Nonetheless it is Johnny Appleseed who introduced apples to much of the Great Lakes region. Key to this story is the fact that apples don’t breed true to seed and thus few were edible and instead settlers made hard cider with these apples much in the same way that Fair Game Beverage uses apples in its distillation process.

Pittsboro is the home of Lee Calhoun, who has famously documented southern apples in his book, Old Southern Apples.



Piedmont-BioFarm1-1024x576Piedmont Biofarm grows an extensive variety of vegetables all while using a minimum of mechanical equipment and no synthetic chemicals. By using season extending techniques the farm is able to provide a healthy repertoire of peppers, sweet potatoes and greens year round to people throughout the piedmont. Through a network that consists of Community Supported Agriculture boxes, the Durham Farmers Market, restaurants, co-ops and farm to table dinners, the Biofarm is able to provide healthy locally grown and most importantly sustainable produce across the piedmont.

These fields of Piedmont Biofarm are referred to as “Arizona” and “Montana.” They were christened such when we brought in an excavator to clear for the farm’s “westward expansion.”

The clearing was controversial at the time. You can read more about that in Energy Blog.



The western edge of Montana and Arizona is lined with aged red cedar trees.

trailCEDARHistorical uses for this tree include flavoring of spirits, the making of English longbows; it is definitely worth knowing that red cedar poles were utilized to mark tribal boundaries of Native American hunting grounds. Until sup plantation by incense cedar, the wood of red cedar was used to make pencils. Moths are averse to the wood thus it is used commonly for the making of closets and chests.

A deciduous species whose range stretches from Maine to Florida and west into Texas and into the upper Midwest, the red cedar is considered a pioneer invader in that it is one of the first species to repopulate cleared land. In poor soils these trees may not grow larger than a bush.

Interestingly enough in addition to outcompeting other species to reclaim fallow or uncultivated land, red cedars, while not an invasive species can outcompete other species in pasturelands by altering soil composition. While not a potent allergen, pollen from red cedars typically aggravates symptoms for those who are sensitive to other species within the Juniperus genus.

The oldest red cedar on earth can be found in West Virginia and is over 900 years old!

Those familiar with the popular “critters” made by Bynum’s Clyde Jones will recognize that he uses cedar in his folk art.



trailWALNUTBlack walnuts need to be near surface water to thrive and thus are found mostly within riparian zones. These trees can reach heights of 100 feet and have a typical lifespan of 130 years.

This disposition towards fast growth and large trees combined with the prized qualities of its hardwood make black walnut trees ideal for forestry. The species was introduced for cultivation in Europe from America in 1629.

In addition to woodworking and timber other practical uses include the making of dyes from the outer skin and of course the eating of the nuts. Black walnuts hybridize readily with other Juglans varieties, much in the same way as American and Chinese chestnuts.

TrailWALNUT2The roots, leaves and nut husks secrete a toxin called jug lone that is poisonous to some other plants such as apples, tomatoes and thus they should not be planted adjacent to each other. This black walnut is on the edge of Piedmont Biofarm’s productive space, which means they will lose the ability to grow food in this area as the tree grows and expands its footprint.

Horses that lay in bedding with walnut wood are prone to laminitis, a progressive and debilitating foot disease.



trailCHERRY2A pioneer species in the same manner as red cedar trees, the black cherry tree thrives as the first occupier of disrupted or altered ecosystems. As time passes other species begin to secede the black cherry and become more prominent.

Black cherry trees are poisonous and thus farmers should remove fallen trees from fields with animals or risk their herd becoming ill as the wilted foliage contains compounds that convert to hydrogen cyanide when eaten.

trailCHERRYThe seeds of the tree also secrete cyanogenic glycosides. These are compounds that can convert to cyanide, as does the flesh of the cherries, what makes the flesh of the cherries safe to eat is absence of the enzymes that convert the cyanogenic glycosides to the deadly poison cyanide.


Fruit of the tree is used for flavoring in pies, sodas, ice cream and jams. It provides a sharper taste than sweet cherries and is used in favor of sweet cherries in some dishes because of this distinctive taste; Black Forest cake is a common dish that favors black cherries over sweet cherries. Hardwood from the tree is prized in cabinetry and is known simply as ¨cherry¨ within the furniture industry.




trailLOCUSTleafNative to the southeastern United States black locust is sometimes falsely referred to as acacia and is similar to other trees of the Fabales order such as the honey locust. Due to nitrogen fixing capabilities black locusts are an alternative to fertilizer in some aspects of farming.

Like several other species on this trail, black locust are an invader or pioneer species, this is a common theme in areas that have previously been disturbed. The pods and seeds are edible while the bark and leaves are not.

trailLOCUSTbarkHoney production is a major outcome of black locust cultivation. A short blooming period of only 10 days makes for highly variable yields from year to year. Flowering starts predictably after 140 growing degree-days. A growing degree-day is a measurement of cumulative heat accumulation that is calculated via a formula and is predictive of plant development because plants grow in a manner that is influenced greatly by ambient air temperature.

Acacia is a prized type of honey that comes from Hungary, this honey comes from black locust trees and the name acacia is a misnomer or false name, sometimes black locusts are even referred to as false acacias. Another naming error occurred when Jesuit missionaries gave the name locust to this tree as they set up missions in America under the idea that this type of tree was one that sustained St. John in the wilderness, however another type of locust native to the Mediterranean basin is the most likely member of the pea family to have filled this historical role.

trailLOCUSTbeanThe tree would be of great value as a timber species were it not for locust borers. These insects, true to their name, bore many holes in black locust trees and thus the trees don’t make it to maturity and can’t be harvested as timber trees. In Europe, black locusts are becoming a favored species in sustainable forestry because of their ability to fix nitrogen and therefore forego fertilization.

In Ayurveda, the Hindu school of traditional medicine, different parts of black locust are used for a variety of purposes; some parts of the tree are toxic while others are not. Shelled seeds are edible while the bark and leaves are toxic. Black locust seeds aren’t typically eaten because they are difficult to shell.



trailSUMAC2Know the difference between red sumac and white sumac berries? Red sumac berries are safe to eat whilst white sumac berries are not and thus are referred to as poison sumac. Sumac is related to poison ivy and poison oak. Red sumac is a very easy tree to identify provided it is in bloom. The berries are very distinctive and robust with the dark red color differentiating them from other varieties of sumac. Because of the presence of several poisonous varieties within the family many people tend to avoid all sumac trees in general even though some types are quite useful. Staghorn sumac for example can be used for herbal teas and is non-toxic.

trailSUMACAside from this confusion about poisonous and non-poisonous varieties, sumac is sometimes used as a spice or flavoring agent as well as a dye and was used in medieval times as a medicinal ingredient because of its strong antioxidant properties. Native Americans used sumac stems to make pipes for the use of tobacco. Beekeepers will occasionally use dried sumac bobs to fuel their smokers. The utility of sumac isn’t in question but the ability to tell poison sumac apart from the rest is important.

Goats are the best method for removal of unwanted sumac because they’ll eat the bark that makes it more difficult for the trees to grow back. Mowing is quite ineffective and sumac trees will regrow shortly thereafter. If elimination of sumac isn’t the goal it is possible to prune shoots growing from the root system to manage growth.



This constructed wetland serves the purpose of cleaning storm water that flows from the Plant during rain events. As the water filters through the wetland, pollutants are removed and runoff is slowed. The outcome of a constructed wetland is essentially the same as that of a wastewater treatment plant however in the use of a constructed wetland, the processes of nature account for the improved water quality and the system is self sustaining.

Additionally constructed wetlands are excellent at removing excess nitrogen and phosphorus from the water cycle and act as a self-sustaining bio filtration system. They are significantly less expensive than conventional treatment methods over the course of time.

Artificial wetlands can either be entirely constructed or restorations of natural wetlands and have proven to be highly effective at removing pollutants and contaminants. In recent years the EPA as a ‘best management practice’ in regards to urban runoff has recognize artificial wetlands.

Examples can be found of wetlands being used instead of wastewater treatment plants. The city of Arcata, California uses a marsh for the dual purpose of a wildlife sanctuary and wastewater treatment plant. The treatment goes in stages of disinfection with chlorine and filtration with marshes, thus this is not a completely natural system and would be termed an enhanced wetland.

Another popular utilization of constructed wetlands is mitigating toxic metals from entering the water cycle at mine sites.

This particular wetland doesn’t use chemicals and is thus complete in its mimicry of a natural wetland and without being informed that it is artificial it is difficult to tell. It was constructed as collaboration between Piedmont Biofuels, NC State University, and the Robeson Creek Watershed Council.



We call this field of Piedmont Biofarm the “Secret Garden.” It was constructed for “isolation beds” that would keep plants from cross-pollinating with unwanted pollen. This agricultural technique is important when a plant species can be easily disturbed through the introduction of unwanted genetic material.

By enclosing the garden in such a way as to discourage cross pollination from outside sources plants that couldn’t be grown in an open field may be cultivated in the Secret Garden. This novel technique requires forethought in selecting a location and effort in constructing a site.

When Biofarm founder Doug Jones was a resident at the Plant, he used isolation beds for the development of the Pittsboro Pepper, a Tobago variety, and for the creation of the Sweet Jemison. Both peppers are celebrated each year at the Abundance Pepper Festival that occurs in the fall of each year.



trailmimosa2The mimosa or Persian silk tree is a small deciduous tree that is attractive to pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. It is however not native to North America and thus is considered an invasive species. Thomas Jefferson introduced it to America. Mimosa trees possess the quality of allelopathy, meaning that the tree will secrete chemicals that inhibit and disrupt the growth of neighbor trees.

trailMIMOSAIt thrives and spreads over wide areas because of characteristics related to the fertility and dispersal of its seeds. The seedpods do not become sterile over long periods of drought and spread readily in wind gusts.

Mimosas are a common ornamental tree throughout Europe but because of its invasive status and susceptibility to a variety of Fusarium fungus, the species is typically not a first choice as an ornamental in America. Mimosa vascular wilt is pervasive in the eastern United States and Mimosas in this part of the country are typically short lived because of this disease.



This invasive species goes by a variety of names depending where on the globe it is to be found. Like other invasive species Elaeagnus spreads because of its ability to thrive in areas where other plants cannot. In colder climates its fruits seldom ripen but that is a non-issue in the temperate parts of America. Additionally it is fast maturing and excels in poor soils because it can fix nitrogen to its roots and therefore outcompetes native species. It is considered an invasive instead of an introduced species because it escaped intentional cultivation and can propagate without human assistance.

In Iran the fruits of the tree are dried and powdered to be mixed with milk as a remedy for joint pains. Due to its suitability to a new habitat it is difficult to remove once entrenched.



This particular variety of honeysuckle is an invasive species, these deciduous trees are known for the sweet nectar that their flowers produce; hence the name honeysuckle. Most varieties possess poisonous berries although some species have edible berries that can be cultivated for consumption. Animals who find the berries appealing are the main method of dispersal of this invasive species. 180 varieties of honeysuckle have been identified globally and various varieties are native throughout the Northern Hemisphere making the delineation and parsing apart of invasive and benign varieties more difficult than when dealing with a plant with fewer species.

Gardeners often like the plant for its ability to cover outbuildings and other unsightly features. They are fragrant with attractive flowers but their use in gardens can come at the price of escaping cultivation and becoming an invasive species in the wild.



Trash is an inescapable reality in the woods of Chatham County. When creating the Farm and Forest Trail, volunteers removed five tons of garbage and four tons of steel. Much of the tires and other trash have been removed but some still remains to provide a visual reminder of the heritage of the site.

Before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and a slew of associated laws designed to prevent environmental degradation, the practice of dumping trash on site such as seen here was common due to convenience and low costs. The process of removing waste after the fact is more difficult than properly disposing of trash the first time. This means that as time passes and pre-regulation facilities close waste can be left behind.



The name of the tree comes from the reddish brown bark. Red oaks are important for timber production and grow exceptionally tall and quickly in forests whereas red oaks in open fields are much wider but not as tall. The life span of this species can be up to 500 years. Some of the largest red oaks can reach well upwards of 100 feet tall and over 20 feet in circumference.

Red oak acorns possess epigeal dormancy and will not germinate without at least three months of sub-40° F temperatures. Acorns mature around 18 months after pollination. While not tasty, the acorns are edible. Red oaks do not bear seeds until the tree is 25 years old and only once every 3-5 years upon reaching maturity.

Common uses of the wood include pallet lumber, veneer and firewood. Red oaks are frequently used as a specimen tree in gardens or parks. Special precautions should be taken when planting red oaks; the tree develops a taproot early in its life thus making transplantation difficult. Because of this red oak acorns should be sown where the tree is intended to grow or seedlings should be moved to their final destination within their first year.

There are northern and southern red oaks; the northern red oak is also called a champion oak whilst the southern red oak is also called a Spanish oak. Their ranges overlap in the piedmont of North Carolina and Spanish oaks occasionally hybridize with other types of oaks. In addition to the champion oak being larger, the bark and leaves make it easy enough to differentiate between the two.



White oaks are named because of the tint of their bark, however it is rare to find a bark with truly white tint, typically the bark is grey. It possesses similar trends in life expectancy as the red oak, like the red oak these trees grow much taller in forests whereas white oaks in open fields can become as wide as they are tall.

Unlike the red oak, white oaks do not display epigeal dormancy and no specific conditions are needed to initiate germination.

Germination rates for acorns are low because animals find them quite suitable as food. In years with a light crop of acorns it is possible for all of them to be lost.



Typically found in wet areas, sycamores can grow to gigantic proportions when deep soil is present. From settler times stories of people living in hollow sycamores exist. To sustain the root system of such a large species, the sycamore is most often found in wetlands and near bodies of water.

Sycamores occupy a wide geographic range; they are common from as far north as New York State and stretch southward along the Atlantic to South Georgia and westward to the other side of the Mississippi. Relatives of the American sycamore are found in the southwest United States and Mexico. The tree is found as an imported species in southern Australia and Argentina.

Sycamores can be susceptible to canker fungus; this is not fatal to the tree but causes defoliation that ruins the aesthetic qualities of the tree. At one time sycamores were a common shade tree in cities but they have been supplanted by other varieties more suitable for the task.



A riparian zone or buffer is the area between land and a waterway. This area can be thought of as interfacing between land and flowing water. These places are characterized by water loving plants and serve functions that support overall ecosystem health. Important functions include: preventing stream bank channelization, denitrifying agricultural runoff, providing wildlife corridors, introducing decaying organic matter to streams and improving water quality.

Generally speaking a wider riparian buffer is better in executing its functions. Therefore riparian zones should be considered whenever decisions are made concerning new construction, forestry, agriculture or any activity that may encroach on the land adjacent to a stream or river. While riparian buffer restoration is possible and has been proven effective, it is easier to take a riparian zone into consideration when initially planning to develop land. By minimally disrupting the area around a flowing or static body of water it is possible to not only maintain ecological and stream health it is also possible to boost property values.

Riparian buffer restoration is regulated under state regulations and requires oversight and advice from an expert. The two primary techniques for restoration of a small creek are either to plant pioneer species along the banks to speed the process of ecological succession or to put large objects into the creek to slow water flow. These two methods slow the flow rate of a creek and make its characteristics similar to a state prior to disruption.

Riparian zones are different from wetlands primarily due to soil conditions. A wetland has hydric soils for a season or more whereas riparian zones only have hydric soils periodically. Hydric soils are saturated in water to the point that anaerobic conditions exist.

The reason we have hardwoods in our riparian zone is because of the steepness of the slope, and the fact that logging equipment would get stuck in the muck.



Fed by an underground water source or aquifer, spring fed creeks are known for being exceptionally clean and for their cold water. Because the water is being pushed out of the ground and not pulled downward by gravity a spring fed creek has consistent flow throughout the year and can exist in places not appropriate for waterways fed by runoff and rainfall.

In wilderness survival a spring fed creek is superior to a surface flow creek as far as a source of water is concerned. Additionally the closer you are to the source the cleaner the water will be. Even a short distance away from the source a spring fed creek begins to take in surface runoff during rains and will thus possess any contaminants within the runoff and rainfall. This makes it so that while a creek may be spring fed in origin it isn’t necessarily going to be pristine by default.

While this creek is too small and shallow to sustain trout; generally spring fed creeks make for excellent fishing because of the colder temperatures and cleaner water.



Do you know the difference between a greenhouse and a high tunnel?

A high tunnel does not make use of heating mechanisms such as propane or electricity whereas a greenhouse is heated. This means that high tunnels are less expensive and a more low-tech option but more susceptible to vicissitudes and fluctuations in temperature. Both greenhouses and high tunnels extend the growing season and allow farmers to get the most out of their land.

By using a translucent roofing material light still reaches plants inside of a greenhouse or high tunnel while the temperature remains warm enough for plants to grow year round. A drawback exists in that having a roof over the plants prevents rainfall from being the primary source of water and necessitates another watering method such as drip irrigation or using water collected in rain barrels.

On the Farm and Forest Trail, Screech Owl Greenhouses uses centrally heated greenhouses, and Piedmont Biofarm uses high tunnels.