We weren’t sure what to expect as we headed into our second year of seed collection for the Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project. Finding suitable wild populations for each ecotype we produce (coastal, mountain, piedmont) is difficult to begin with, and we wanted to give last year’s collection sites a break this year to make sure there are no negative impacts on the wild populations. This was the last full year to collect the material needed for the current scope of this project, so it was imperative that we used every resource possible to collect all 18 of our target species. Luckily, some key collaborations helped save the season. 

A huge part of this year’s success was due to the Virginia Master Naturalists, who established a statewide project to help us with seed collection. VMN volunteers collected more than a third of our entire final seed supply. We also had assistance from several public schools and other independent volunteers who made time to collect seeds for the project!

Additionally, the Department of Wildlife Resources gave us permission to collect seeds at over a dozen different wildlife management areas. With the dedication of our many volunteers, help from VMN, and the partnership with DWR, we were able to collect all 18 target species and we expanded our reach into mountain and coastal areas. 

Liz Keily and Maeve Coker assisting with the collection of coastal plain ecotype seeds.

As we wait for spring and the next growing season, we are working on securing additional funding to extend the project another three years. This is the critical next step to see more Virginia ecotype seed hit the market because it will help us get our harvesting operations to the commercial scale. 

We’re planning to expand the project by recruiting more farmers in the western portion of Virginia, responding to interest from several public schools regarding implementing programs for native plant propagation, and collaborating with the Rappahannock Tribe to establish a seed harvesting operation. All of this interest helps reaffirm what we know about this project–it has a broad range of applications and there are countless ways that it can benefit everyone from the farmers who grow the seeds, the consumers who plant them, and of course, the wildlife that depend on native plants. 

Robert Heffler and company at Slade Farms harvesting the first seed produced on the project!

Thank you to our partners and collaborators thus far:

The Nature Conservancy

Ernst Conservation Seeds

Capital Region Land Conservancy

Department of Conservation Recreation

Virginia State University

Department of Wildlife Resources

Center for Urban Habitats

Virginia Master Naturalists

Friends of Dragon Run

Chancellor’s Rock Farm

Slade Farms

Pat Acres Farm

Morning Glory Farm

Rev. Dr. Johnny & Fonda Hicks

Marky Dewhirst & Scott Barboza

We are one year into our Virginia Native Seed Pilot Project, and so much has already been accomplished! Our Native Seed Project Coordinator Isaac Matlock has been busy growing plugs, assisting participating farmers, and deepening connections with partners. We caught him between site visits for an update:

1. What were you excited to accomplish over the summer?

IM: We were mostly planning for the fall and focusing on keeping the plants in the greenhouse alive. There were a few species that hadn’t been collected last year and these were picked up by a few volunteers this summer. It was great to officially collect all 18 species for the project. Eastern Smooth Beardtongue (Penstemon laevigatus) proved difficult to obtain and I almost gave up on collecting it this year. (Thank you Center for Urban Habitats! for sharing seeds with us!)

We also finished planting our native seed harvest demonstration plot here at Clifton. This will give us a space to start our own commercial seed production and also serve as an example to prospective farmers.

2. It’s seed collection season again. What is different about this year compared to last year?

IM: This year I am focused less on the volume of seed collected and more on the diversity of populations collected from. Last year we collected a great amount of seed but were limited in the areas of Virginia that we collected from. I’d like to make up for that and visit more areas around the state. This way we can maximize the genetic diversity in our seeds.

3. How are the seed farmers progressing? 

IM: Everyone is in a slightly different stage. Some people have seeds ready to harvest this year, some just planted this fall, but all are on track to meet the project objectives!

Farmers planting their first plot of native, local ecotype plants!

Looking back on what the Clifton greenhouse looked like at the beginning of the project…

And what the Clifton greenhouse looked like at the height of summer growing!

Words and photos courtesy of Andrew Eberly


Fall is our busiest time for removing Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and other woody invasives. When I scan the fields for plants to cut, Autumn Olive tends to stand out, but with the diversity of different forms and textures in some areas, even that species can blend into the background and go undetected. One eventually develops a search image for whatever the target species is. I tend to focus on the silvery and persistent foliage of Autumn Olive, or the barred pattern created by the compound leaves of Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). When a single species or set of species comes into focus over the “background noise” of different forms, interesting patterns emerge.

An island of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) growing in a wet meadow in Fauquier County. Members of the rose family are often prolific cloners. It is likely that much of this island is just one genetic individual expanding outward each growing season. This area was burned in the winter of 2022. Islands of thorny shrubs like this act as a refuge and a food source for many animals. When planning restorations, it is worth thinking about how to lay out the landscape to accommodate for this growth form.

I often notice that many of the more prominent species seem to occur in clumps, almost like islands where one species is particularly dominant. The islands are numerous in some areas while absent from others. Occasionally, they even seem to have a ring-like shape. At Clifton, Blackberries (Rubus sp.) and Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) dominate patches of ground throughout the grasslands, Black Locust occurs as a few large islands of dense, thorny saplings, Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) seems to grow in mounds of evenly aged stems, even the Lowbush Blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) of the forest floor forms islands that hold on to windblown leaves in the winter, adding to their bulk.

This is an interesting and familiar pattern. I am reminded of many other grassland ecosystems I have worked in: Wild Plums (Prunus sp.) and Sumacs (Rhus sp.) in the Flint Hills of Kansas, mounds of Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and Shin Oak (Quercus havardii) on the Rolling Plains of Oklahoma, “mottes” of Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis) on the Edward’s Plateau of Texas, thickets of Turkey Oak (Quercus laevis) in a Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) savanna in Florida, rings of grasses like Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis) on dry prairies, walls of Alders (Alnus sp.) and shrubby Dogwoods (Cornus sp.) crowding stream banks in New England.

It seems to be a theme in ecosystems of many types, and I often wonder, are these really congregations of different individuals? Could the islands be just a single organism with lots of different stems emerging from one root system?

A large patch of Narrowleaf Mountain-Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) in Fauquier County. Like many mints this species is a master of spreading through rhizomes. This is also a prolific seed producer, it seems likely that a patch like this is expanding by both sexual and asexual reproduction.

Cloning in one form or another is a very common way for plants to propagate themselves. Many people may have heard of Pando, the Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) in Utah that occupies 106 acres of land and has 40,000 above ground stems (trees) to its name. This is all a single genetic individual, connected by its roots to form the largest organism on the planet. King Clone is another famous clone, a Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) in the Mojave Desert that has been creeping underground and sending up new aboveground shoots for nearly 12,000 years. We have many local examples, indeed, most of our perennial grasses and forbs and many of our trees can produce new plants from some portion of their root system or underground stems designed specifically for cloning.

Several new shoots arise from a rhizome of Deer-Tongue (Dichanthelium clandestinum). This species forms clonal colonies in wet meadows. The rhizome has numerous roots growing form it and the purple area at the top is a bud where the cells that will become stems and leaves of a new above ground culm are waiting for warmer weather. If you remove the soil from a shovelful of turf from any given field you will notice that the top couple inches is full of rhizomes, all capable of sending up new shoots when conditions are right.

How do they do it? In many cases plants grow stems underground in addition to their aboveground stems. Underground stems are called rhizomes. Stolons are similar structures that hug the ground just above the surface. Rhizomes and stolons have buds at regular intervals from which new roots and shoots can emerge. Proper roots can also develop buds that become new aboveground shoots. Sometimes these underground buds take the form of bulbs like in daffodils (Narcissus sp.) or they emerge from thickened stolons like in potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). Aboveground stems that are members of a clone are called ramets.

In trees, cloning is especially prevalent in species that grow in disturbed areas like Black Locust, Sassafras, and Sumacs. In places where I have cut younger, more vigorous Tulip Poplars and Oaks, a flush of new buds seems to appear out of nowhere right around the edges of the stump. It is common to see Goldenrods (Solidago sp.), Mountain Mints, Ironweeds (Vernonia sp.), and many other herbaceous perennials growing in clusters. Colonies of Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) may expand across our shrublands at a rate of several feet per year while colonies of Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) expand slowly, preferring to cluster their short rhizomes in tight bundles.

The ability to reproduce and spread underground has many advantages for plants that live longer than one or two growing seasons. When we burn or mow our fields in the early spring, we usually see a period of rapid growth afterwards. Most of this growth is generated by plants that may already be years or decades old, but were underground, where stored energy and protection from flames and freezing weather gives them a huge advantage over new seedlings.

Underground growth also allows individuals to search for patches of resources like water and fertile soil, that may not exist exactly where the seeds originally fell. Old ramets on less suitable sites will die off, while growth becomes focused in new areas with better growing conditions, allowing the entire clone to shift across the landscape.

A particularly hot fire killed many of the mature trees here on Back Creek Mountain in Bath County. The Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) in the understory is a highly colonial species, capable of expanding quickly from existing rhizomes to form a dense shrub layer. Many of the Scarlet Oaks (Quercus coccinea) are also sprouting from the root collar adding to the diversity of this temporary shrubland.

If cloning is so efficient, why produce seeds at all? The evolution of flowers and seeds is arguably one of the greatest achievements of life on earth. I don’t wish to diminish the importance of producing seeds. Combining the genomes of two different individuals creates genetic diversity, spreads beneficial mutations and allows organisms to adapt to a changing world. Coating your offspring in a protective shell and then sending them off to the far reaches is a great way to colonize new lands and reduce competition. Once seedlings have established though, it makes sense that you would want to be able to keep sending up new versions of yourself in case one gets burned, frozen, eaten, or chopped down.

At Clifton we have a few American Plums (Prunus americana) that were planted in the South Pasture in conjunction with the larger riparian tree planting effort along a small tributary. Plums and many other members of the genus Prunus love to grow in the form of clonal islands, thickets of densely crowded stems that offer Quail and other grassland birds much needed shelter. We usually try to mow right up to the base of our tree plantings, but I have slowly been trying to give the plums and other plants that love growing this way a little space to develop new shoots or “suckers”. Even if the existing main trunk is girdled and killed, once the root system has developed for a few years, new ramets should happily sprout nearby.

I think it is important to consider this tendency of many species to spread by cloning in our management decisions. How does one accommodate for this pattern of growth when planning restorations or managing land? It seems many people tend to view patches of blackberries or single goldenrod species or any “monoculture” as a hindrance to diversity. This is not always the case; diversity happens on many spatial (and time) scales. For example, many clonal patches take on a ring-like pattern with age. As roots and rhizomes creep outward from the original point of establishment, they utilize available resources and with their combined energy, they can crowd out other plants. Over time though, ramets in the middle of the clone begin to die off as resources are used up and the plant basically out-competes itself. The middle of the clone then becomes bare ground where seeds of new species, with different resource requirements can thrive. Maybe this can be seen as a slow-motion disturbance event, creating new niches in the ecosystem while the clone anchors the soil and provides cover to pollinators and seed dispersers.

Maple-Leaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) occurs as clonal islands in the forest understory.

It’s almost Halloween, so here are ten native plants (and fungi) with spooky names, stories, or associations to get you in the holiday spirit!


Bleeding Tooth mushroom (Hydnellum peckii)

Also called: strawberries and cream, Devil’s tooth, red-juice tooth fungus.

It isn’t clear how or why these young mushrooms “bleed” but it’s thought that if the fungus has to grow quickly then it has to expel extra water, which results in the “blood.” They can be found in the Appalachian mountains in our area, though they are widespread across the country and more common in the Pacific Northwest.

Eryne Croquet photo

Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda

Also known as White Baneberry. This herbaceous perennial is toxic to humans but its pollen is valuable for short-tongued bees and birds love the berries!

Miranda Kohout photo

Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora)

Ghost Pipe is a wildflower disguised as a mushroom. Its phantasmal appearance is due to its lack of chlorophyll. Instead of using photosynthesis, Ghost Pipe (and other saprophytes) tap into the root systems of nearby trees via mycorrhizal fungi to obtain nutrients

Naomi Cappuccino photo

Dodder (genus Cuscuta)

Also called: Strangleweed, Witch’s Hair, Devil’s Guts

There are more than 200 species of dodder found across the world. These parasitic vines don’t have roots or leaves once they mature, so seedlings have to rush to find a host plant. They tap into a host’s vascular system for all their needs. Some species are host specialists, but others can cross a wide range of hosts, making them difficult to control.

Marina Giann photo

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot is one of our favorite spring ephemerals. It’s named for the red sap that comes from all parts of the plant (but especially the roots), which has historically been used as a dye as well as insect repellent. Bloodroot also depends on an interesting partnership for seed dispersal: the seeds have an elaiosome (a fleshy structure attached to the seed) that are attractive to ants. Ants carry the seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosome, then dispose of the seeds!

Eleanor Harris photo

Common Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

Also known as American witch-hazel, this native shrub is best known for its unique flowers, which are present through the fall and sometimes into winter! It has had a wide range of  medicinal uses throughout history and can still be found on the ingredient list for cosmetic products. The common name might come from the tradition of using witch-hazel branches as divining rods when looking for underground water sources.

Anthony A Simmons photo

Dead Man’s Fingers (Xylaria polymorpha)

Dead man’s fingers is a saprobic fungus and is usually found on or near the stumps of dead trees, which they use for nutrients. The name comes from the appearance of the mature “fingers” but this mushroom actually starts out as a light blue and fades to a shriveled dark brown by the end of its above-ground lifespan.

Phillip Neal photo

 Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

Did you know that Virginia has native carnivorous plants? The purple pitcher plant is one of them! The pitchers fill up with rainwater and attract insects. Once insects enter the pitcher they can’t get out and they’re slowly broken down by the plant’s digestive enzymes. Despite that, purple pitcher plants are also host plants for a species of mosquito larvae (Wyeomyia smithii) and one species of midge (Metriocnemus knabi).

wewantashrubbery photo

Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia)

Also called: Fringed Bleedinghearts, Wild Bleedingheart

The common name for this native perennial comes from the heart-shaped flower and the dangling inner petals that suggest a drop of blood. It attracts hummingbirds and bees, including native long-tongued bees! Despite its delicate appearance, bleeding heart is fairly hardy and can bloom from the first warmth of spring to the first frosts of fall.

Zygy photo

 Devil’s Walking Stick (Aralia spinosa)

Also called: Hercules Club, Prickly Elder, Prickly Ash

This perennial tree is full of intrigue. It’s armed with prickles when it’s young enough to be at grazing height for herbivores, but some scientists theorize that since deer don’t seem to show much interest in devil’s walking stick anyways, that the prickles were evolved to protect the plant against larger herbivores like bison or elk!

mefisher photo

Our Young Scientists Research Experience is one of our favorite programs of the year!
Middle and high school students spend a week with us doing their own independent research projects. They come up with a research question, collect data to answer their questions, and share their findings during a presentation to friends and family.

We’re incredibly proud of the work these students did, and we’re excited to share their results with you!

If you’d like to sign up for next year’s Young Scientist Research Experience, you can subscribe to our email newsletter to be notified when registration opens.

Here’s a quick summary of all their hard work:
Lane found that spittlebug larvae prefer to inhabit goldenrod, blackberry, and crownbeard.
Logan found that Field Sparrows are more abundant in the fields we burn than in the fields we mow.
Grant found that bigger Redbuds have more pods.
Elyssa found that more aromatic Spicebush trees actually have more insects on them.
Liam and Loreli worked together to find that the habitat preferences of dragonflies and damselflies are almost opposite those of salamander larvae.
Sarah found that insects prefer to eat lighter-colored leaves and that insect damage doesn’t appear to affect leaf color.
We want to offer special thanks to Maggie Grady! Maggie was a student in this program for the last two years. She returned this summer as a research intern but also kindly agreed to help this week as a mentor. The students appreciated having a previous participant around for guidance and we loved having Maggie’s help for the week.

The Clifton Institute was featured in this piece by Bob Hurley for Rappahannock News. Check it out!



Clifton was featured in the April edition of Middleburg Life! Check out the article below (starts on page 30)

The Clifton Institute’s own Caylen Wolfer was recently published in the VOS newsletter! Click on the link to read the full article:


VSO Newsletter Spring 2023 Vol 69 No 2-pages-1-3

The Clifton Institute was featured in the March/April 2023 issue of Virginia Wildlife Magazine! Click the link below to read the article.

March_April_2023Clifton article