Trees and Shrubs

a red maple tree with a few red leaves surrounded by greenery
A Red Maple in autumn

NPS Photo

Prince William Forest Park is the largest contiguous piedmont forest type in the National Park Service. The park sits in a transitional zone between northern and southern climates, and eastern and western physiographic provinces. On your journey through the park's 15,000 acres you will find several rare communities, including a seepage swamp, remote stands of eastern hemlock, and several populations of rare plants. As surveys are conducted, other rare communities may be located.

From the top of the forest canopy to the bottom of Quantico Creek, forest ecosystems act as entire communities, much like cities do for humans. Different animals and insect use the various 'stories' for the forest high rise for different reasons. Understory trees and vegetation, including dogwood, redbud, ironwood, mountain laurel, American holly, solomon's seal, spotted wintergreen, and sassafras, are found throughout the forest. Ferns, mosses, vines, briers, and numerous wildflowers form the groundcover. Cardinal flower and hercules club are common in the park, although uncommon and protected elsewhere.

white oak leaves

White Oak, Quercus alba

This is a large growing tree which dominates the forest canopy. This tree like many oaks is a great wildlife species. The acorns are a favorite to many wildlife species even early settlers would boil and eaten or grounded into a flower. White oak is a favorite of early and modern loggers for the constriction of houses. White oak was used in the construction of the cabin camps which are in the park.

tulip poplar leaf in fall

Yellow Poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera

Yellow Poplar also goes by the name “Tulip Tree” since its leaves resemble that of a tulip. Yellow Poplars are the tallest growing tree in the eastern United States. Its size and light weight of the wood combined with the straightness of the trunk makes this tree ideal for wood working. The wood is easy to work with and was used by American Indians for canoes.

red maple in fall

Red Maple, Acer rubrum

Now one of the most dominate trees in the eastern United States because of the absence of forest fires in today’s forests. Red maples are easy to identify because of the characteristic smooth park and the leaves which during the fall turn bright red. During the winter when the leaves are gone the tree is still easy to spot with its opposite branching (M.A.D) Maple, Ash, and Dogwood are the three species which have opposite branching

virginia pine

Virginia Pine, Pinus virginiana

One of the most common species in Prince William Forest Park. Virginia Pine is easy to identify its flaky bark, and two needles in a bundle is direct give away. It is a pioneer species and is the first tree to enter a sight enriching the soil and making it possible for others to grow. When the Cabin Branch Pyrite Mine was found to be contaminated and not allowing anything to grow at the site the National Park Service planted 5,00 Virginia Pines in hopes of bringing the site bake to its original setting


Sassafras, Sassafras albidum

The roots and bark supply oil for perfume soap and sassafras tea, and have been used to flavor root bear. It was believed that the bark also acted as a cure-all for diseases. But resent research has found the roots and bark of the sassafras to have cancerous properties.


American Beech, Fagus grandifolia

The American beech is easy to identify because of the engravings written in them which gives the tree its second name known as the “graffiti tree”. Daniel Boone left his mark in a Beech tree while hunting writing "D. Boone Cilled A bar ON Tree In Year 1760". Throughout Prince William Forest Park you'll see many such writings on trees. Please do not leave your mark on a beech tree. They are beautiful just the way they are and carvings into trees can be a venue for disease and parasites to enter and eventually kill the tree.

The smooth bark of the beech tree can be compared to elephant skin and the leaves, which turn a bright yellow in fall, eventually brown and remain on the tree until spring.

mountain laurel flowers

Mountain Laurel, Kalmia latifolia

Mountain laurel is poisonous to several different animals, including horses, goats, cattle, sheep, and deer. The honey which is made from mountain laurel pollen is believed to be poisonous. The wood has been used to make tool handles and tobacco pipes.

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American Holly

American Holly, llex opaca

Best known as "Christmas Holly," this boardleaved tree is a rarity in that it is also an evergreen. This unique character makes it a favorite among birds. The American Holly comes in a male and female form, with only the female trees growing berries. The male plant pollinates multiple females through bees. Picking berries are harmful to the trees and to humans if ingested. The holly was a favorite of George Washington as he wrote about it in his diary fairly often. He once wrote of transplanting many "little hollies" to his Mount Vernon home, only to write again a year later that they had all died. Washington often received small holly trees as gifts. The American Holly can be spotted along the North Valley Trail.

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Red Oak

Red Oak, Quercus rubra

The red oak is one of the largest and most important timber trees. One of the fastest growing of the oaks, it attains to 80 feet and a diameter of two to three feet. It has a wide, spreading head with few far reaching branches. The fruit is a large, broad, rounded acorn with a very shallow disk-like or saucer-shaped cup. Acorns provide a food source for numerous birds and animals. Such as ruffed grouse, nuthatch, blue jay, wild turkey, red and gray fox, squirrels, bears, deer, and raccoons. The inner bark of the red oak tree first chewed then soaked in water provides a wash said to be good for sore eyes. You can see red oak along Farms to Forest Trail.

Illustration of a Sycamore

Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis

Sycamore is one of the most massive trees of Virginia with a fast growing characteristic. Although it is a very messy tree unable to take care of itself; the wood is primarily used for furniture. You will find this tree to have bark that flakes off in rather large sections. The flakes are due to the tree growing faster than the bark tissue can expand. Large establishments of sycamore plantations were located in the coastal plains of Virginia in the 1960s and 70s.

Chestnut Oak illustration
Chestnut Oak

Chesnut Oak, Quercus prinus

One of the oldest living chestnut oaks is called the “Washington Oak” located on the Hudson River. It is believed to be 800 to 1,000 years old. It is through this species that the saying “she threatened to tan our hides” originated. You may have heard this while growing up and misbehaving. A chemical called “tannin” is found in the bark, leaves, and wood of this tree. It is commonly used to tan raw hides (i.e. animal skin) to make leather. Acorns had several uses for early pioneers. Today the classic button is made of a plastic or metal, but pioneers used the caps of acorns. The remainder of the acorn could be dried and ground to a powder to be used as a sweet thickening agent for stew.

Black Tupelo illustration
Black Tupelo

Black Tueplo, Nyssa sylvatica

Detested by lumberman for its interbraided and crosswoven grain, the black tupelo could not easily be downed by ax, wedge, or sledge. You may be able to identify the black tupelo through its characteristic of growing shorter as it grows older. This tree actually begins to decay from the top down and when its strength can no longer bear its weight, the tops fall off. However, this unique quality made it a superb wood for the handles of heavy-duty tools that needed to absorb shock such as the ax used for splitting wood. The wood from black tupelo was also used in railroad ties. It is possible they were used in the railroad system that came through the park to support the old Pyrite Mine. The wood would have been strong and durable enough to sustain the strains of the heavy loads of pyrite. This species has also been referred to as sourgum or black gum and the latin name means “water nymph of the forest”. See if you can find this tree along the Birch Bluff trail.


Willow Oak, Quercus phellos

Willow Oak is a Deciduous tree the red oak group of oaks. It is native to eastern North America. The tree is notable for its leaves, which, unlike other oak trees, resemble the long green leaves of a willow tree. Willow oaks produce an abundance of acorns, which are enjoyed by wildlife such as squirrels and birds. Willow oak is often used as a landscaping tree, thanks to its appearance and shade. The leaves of the tree undergo a colorful change in the autumn. Several willow oaks can be found in the Pine Grove Picnic Area.


American Chestnut, Castanea dentata

Chestnuts were picked and soled commercially to venders in New York. Commercial pickers looked for an easier way to pick these chestnuts and found the Chinese chestnut which is native to Asia which is a small growing tree which allows for easy picking. The first Chinese Chestnut tree was brought to New York City; the Chinese Chestnuts brought a decease known as the Chinese chestnut blight which American chestnuts are not resistant to. This blight has completely obliterated the population of American Chestnuts. Look through the park and you may find a sapling or two which has not yet been attacked.

Low Bush Blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium

This small shrub is common through out the park. Low Bush Blueberry is fire-tolerant and its numbers often increase in an area following a forest fire. These wild blueberries are edible just like commercially grown.


White Pine, Pinus strobus

The White Pine is easiest to identify by the five needles in each vesicle. An easy way to remember is white five letters so there are five needles in every white pine bundle. During colonial times white pines were marked with arrows, these were designated as king trees, which were to be used for the royal navy for building sails. Early lumber tree because it can float on water which makes it easy to transport.

Last updated: October 16, 2017

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