Canaan Cone Collecting - Part I

Or, Watch Them Thunderbolts When on Them Ladders!

(Part II of the Adventures of the dedicated Coneheads will appear in the October Highlands Voice)

By Dave Saville

We had a great, somewhat wet, bountiful, fun, enlightening weekend (July 29 & 30) in Canaan. Overall, a huge success! We had about 20 volunteer balsam fir cone gatherers on Saturday and about 12 on Sunday. We spread out with as many as eight ladders -- 4-40 foot, 1-32 foot, and 3-20 foot ladders up on the trees with climbers on each one. We collected data on each tree, tagged them, and kept cones from each stand separate. We have collected several bushels of cones from over 100 trees in 4 stands on the Canaan Valley State Park, 3 stands on the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge and 2 sites on private property in the Valley. Some collectors were so engaged as to stay over until Monday to pick up a couple stands we were not able to get to during the weekend.

This morning I will spread the cones out on racks to cure. In a few weeks, when they are good and dry, we will tumble them, to break them apart, then use a "windmill" to separate the seeds from the rest of the cone parts. The Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Plant Materials Center in Alderson will then begin stratification of some seeds to germinate, and put the rest into storage.

All the seeds will remain the property of the land managing agency, or property owner, of where the seeds were collected. In the near future we will begin a cooperative restoration planning process with everyone involved.

The tenacious volunteers need to be thanked, not only for the success of their efforts, but also for braving frequent afternoon thunderstorms. Nobody moved so fast as the climbers scurrying down the aluminum ladders (dubbed "lightning rods") when the thunder began to roll in. There was more than enough work for the rest of us, who don’t care for heights, to keep track of the data, the cones, tags and getting the ladders up into and out of the trees. We even succeeded in getting Jeff Young from West Virginia Public Radio up into a couple trees. (He aired his story on his experience on the radio a few days later).

On Saturday, Siriannis Restaurant in Davis provided some great pizzas for lunch, including a couple of Wally's vegetarian specials. Um, Um good!! On Sunday, Laurie and Chip Chase, of the Whitegrass Ski Touring Center and Cafe fame, (well known folks to Highlands Conservancy members and Canaan Valley locals as well), hosted us for lunch at their beautiful new home. We also had mascots "Scout," the black lab, and "Belle"(Ding Ding), the Champion, and working, Bloodhound to help with the entertainment, if not the work.

From forty feet up, atop a spiring balsam tree, the view is incredible. Once over the unease caused by a shaky, swaying ladder, you could enjoy the view of the surrounding treetops and landscape. Although almost breathtaking, the splendor of the vista was somewhat dampened by the site of so many gray, dead skeletons of once lush, dense, blue-green balsam fir treetops. The extent of the devastation brought by the exotic balsam woolly adelgid is very saddening indeed. Many stands we had considered for collection were so far gone as to not have any trees left healthy enough to produce any seed. The plague seems to spread through a stand like a wave, where one portion of a stand is completely decimated, and another still healthy, and just beginning to become infested.

Our collective thoughts during the weekend seemed to lead to what seems like another logical human intervention – protecting some of the remaining naturally existing fir trees. The adelgid is very easily controlled by several means. Perhaps the safest, and most environmentally friendly, is by spraying the trees with dormant horticultural oil spray during the winter months. This is an insect control method long used by organic gardeners (which includes use apple orchards). The adelgid does not fly – they live their entire lives on the host tree. In the winter, only the immature nymphs of the adelgid are present. Our next step in sub-species conservation may be to identify accessible, isolated, compact stands throughout the state, and implement a treatment program.

We will be back at our cone collecting duties on Saturday, August 19. We will meet at the Greenbrier Ranger District Headquarters in Bartow at 8:30 AM, and proceed to Blister Run of Shavers Fork to spend the day with our ladders and burlap sacks. On Sunday August 20, The Mountain Institute's Appalachian Program will lead a team of Cone Collectors to Blister Swamp to collect cones from the few trees left there. I will be on a badly needed vacation much of the time between now and then, but do hope to check my e-mail occasionally. Anyone interested in helping on August 19, should drop me a line at or (304) 284-9548. I’ll be home on the 15th and will get back to you then.

[note: this article was written prior to the August dates mentioned above.]