Nature on Display

Jenai Young
May 01, 2001

"What are you finding up there?" a student asks Daniel Laughlin. "Lady's-slippers," he replies. "Pink lady's-slippers. Just pink but there could be yellow ones too."

"Can you take me up there sometime?"

drawing of arboretum among green hills

Laughlin, a graduate student in ecology, studies how to restore native grasslands. But for the past year he has been documenting the kinds of plants found on the site of Penn State's proposed arboretum, 395 acres adjacent to the University Park campus. Part of the property is an oak woodland, dominated by white oaks that have been estimated to be 170 years old, according to Marc Abrams, a faculty member in the School of Forest Resources. Beneath them Laughlin has found Canada lily, culver's root, Joe-Pye-weed, wild lily-of-the-valley, spotted wintergreen, flat-topped white aster, and New-Jersey-tea. He found the pink lady's-slippers in nearby pine plantation, along with large round-leafed orchids, doll's eyes, spikenard, hepatica, whorled rosinweed, yellow pimpernel, sweet-cicely, nodding onion, pipsissewa, thimbleweed, white snakeroot, and wild bergamot.

Each time he finds a new plant, he collects a sample (unless the plant is rare), and presses and labels it to be stored in Penn State's herbarium. As changes take place within the arboretum, the plant environment could be affected. Laughlin's list will help the planners ensure that rare native species are not lost, and will help monitor change over time. Visitors to the arboretum, to be developed over the next decade, may not be aware of all the behind-the-scenes work. But according to Kim Steiner, a professor of forest biology who was appointed director of the project in October 2000, an arboretum "is deliberately composed and designed. Nothing in it is there except by calculation."

When it is completed, the Penn State Arboretum "will be the single most attractive thing on campus," Steiner adds. It will be "a living museum," says Jason Veil, a senior in Forestry Science, but better: "You can't go into a museum and lie in the grass."

Currently, an air quality monitoring station is located within the arboretum. Other research facilities scattered across campus will be moved there, such as the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, which conducts research on pesticides, grass varieties, fertilizers, and soil. (Penn State turfgrass varieties are used at several prominent golf courses such as Cypress Point Club in Pebble Beach, California, and Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.) The Penn State Trial Gardens will also be moved into the arboretum. Each year, plant and vegetable varieties are grown there and evaluated for color, fragrance, uniqueness, and disease resistance.

New research ideas include a possible collaboration with the American Chestnut Foundation in their fight against chestnut blight. At one time, says Steiner, "Pennsylvania probably had more American chestnut trees than any other state. Its wood was used for many of the old barns that are still common in the countryside, and the nuts were gathered in large quantities for human consumption." Over the years, chestnut blight has destroyed most trees of the species. Their loss "has completely transformed the woodland," says Steiner. "Chestnut was once the most abundant tree in the Commonwealth, and now it is virtually gone."

Genes for resistance to the blight have been found in the Chinese chestnut, a closely related species. The American Chestnut Foundation hopes to successfully produce American chestnuts with these genes, Steiner explains, by hybridizing the two species and then backcrossing to American chestnut. "As each subsequent generation is backcrossed using only resistant trees, the population becomes ever more purely American except for containing Chinese genes for blight resistance."

Although there are no chestnuts now in the 100-acre oak and pine forest in the arboretum, it is an "ancient forest," says Ann Bond, a junior in horticulture. As an "Ag Advocate," Bond helps promote the College of Agricultural Sciences to prospective students and already gives tours through the arboretum.

Today it is rare to see forests in a "pre-Columbian" state. Even the forested areas around State College are very different from those that existed 300 years ago, according to Steiner. Several plants that are not indigenous to the area, such as Norway Maple, are now very common.

How are these non-native "invasions," as Steiner calls them, explained? It's a simple recipe: Take the original forested area, exclude natural fires from it, and add thousands of home gardens full of plant life from foreign lands. The result is an unnatural plant community. "The most aggressive exotic plants completely transform a woodlot," says Steiner, and it happens in suburbs across the country, "wherever people meet the forests."

In the arboretum, projects to remove exotic species will help maintain the forest's native plant life. "A lot of the non-native exotics are shrubs and small canopy trees," says Neil Korostoff, an associate professor in landscape architecture. "They form a very dense layer of non-native shrubs, which prevents wildflowers from getting any light." The native wildflowers still exist in what Korostoff calls a "dormant state," as bulbs or seeds. If the exotic shrubs are removed, sunlight is able to reach the ground layer so they can thrive once again. "It's amazing how quickly the native plant community responds," says Korostoff.

In the fall of 2000, Korostoff's landscape architecture class documented and removed exotics found in a forest patch that extends into the arboretum. In the future, Penn State's student societies in Forestry and Landscape Architecture will carry on the work. Exotics will be removed from plots of land, and the results will be monitored and compared to surrounding control plots left untouched. Korostoff says these projects are "service learning activities" for the students. "They learn something by doing something for the community, and it provides us with knowledge for future arboretum restoration."

In nature, fires help to eliminate non-native species in both forests and prairies. Laughlin explains that fires burn the surface vegetation on prairies, and woody and some non-native plants are typically eliminated. Yet native grasses can continue to grow because they evolved under a regime of frequent fires. In an oak-dominated forest, fires can help clear unwanted vegetation from the understory. The fires help restore the forest to a "temple-like area with large oak buttresses," says Laughlin, as it was in pre-colonial times. In fact, "burning," or intentionally starting a fire on a plot of land is another method of restoration used by arboreta, according to Steiner, who thinks the method might eventually be useful at Penn State's arboretum as well.

The new arboretum will be equipped with several classrooms, bringing lectures and outdoor activities together. It will be a chance to "get your hands in the dirt," says Bond, "a wonderful opportunity to have field experience."

Both Bond and Veil have had internships at other arboreta. Last summer, Veil worked at the Holden Arboretum in Cleveland, where he says he "was exposed to a horticulturally rich environment day-in and day-out." In the future, Penn State students will be able to have this same experience without having to travel far, a benefit that is "way overdue," says Veil.

With walkways and benches throughout the gardens and forested areas, the arboretum will also be a place of relaxation for the public. An amphitheatre will hold theatrical performances, art shows, and outdoor sculpture exhibits. A bike trail along the Bellefonte Central Railroad grade will connect to several existing bike trails in the area. For students the arboretum will be a place to take a walk, do homework, or just escape the hustle and bustle of campus life. Bond points out one benefit is simply having a place that's not affected by car and bus exhaust. "Personally I would just be inhaling and exhaling," she says. It will be "a wonderful place to relax."

Kim Steiner, Ph.D., Director of the Arboretum at Penn State, is professor of forest biology in the School of Forest Resources, College of Agricultural Sciences, 213 Ferguson Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-9351; Neil Korostoff is associate professor of landscape architecture, College of Arts and Architecture, 303 Engineering Unit D, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-8134; Daniel Laughlin is a graduate student in the Interdisciplinary Graduate Degree Program in Ecology. Jason Veil is an urban forestry major in the School of Forest Resources. Ann Bond, a horticulture major in the College of Agricultural Sciences, completed an internship at the National Arboretum in Washington D.C.

Last Updated May 01, 2001