Vassar Stories

Reclaiming the Edith Roberts Ecological Laboratory

The elderberries are back. So are the speckled alder and the spice bush and the viburnum. These shrubs and more than 600 other plant species were once part of a cutting-edge ecological project hatched on the Vassar campus nearly a century ago by famed botanist and plant science prof. Edith Roberts. 

When Roberts’ project was completed in the mid-1920s, it contained every plant species native to the region. Roberts and other Vassar faculty used the site to provide their students with hands-on knowledge about plant life and its management. Following her retirement in 1948, however, the 3.5-acre Ecological Laboratory suffered from years of neglect. Invasive vines choked trees and robbed  the plants of vital sunlight, and many of them died. But over the past five years, biology prof. Meg Ronsheim and some of her students have been bringing this unique outdoor classroom back to life. “Our goal is to find out what was there when Edith created it, investigate what happened to it over the next 90 years and figure out how to restore and manage it,” Ronsheim says.

Every summer since 2010, students enrolled in Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) have been working on the restoration project, initially doing assessments and, since 2013, ripping down the porcelain berry and other invasive vines that have been disrupting the growth of the other plants on the site, and they’ve been planting new trees, flowers and shrubs to replace those that have disappeared. Of the 675 species that Roberts planted in the 1920s, only about 110 remained when Ronsheim and her students began to reclaim the site.

This year’s URSI students, Addison Tate ’17 and Jessie Prutisto-Chang ’18, say they’re excited to be part of Ronsheim’s ambitious restoration project. “I learned a little about the invasive vine issues in an ecology class I took, and working out here this summer, I can see how the problem is accelerating,” says Tate, an environmental studies major from Bidport, VT.  He and Prutisto-Chang have removed the vines from several parts of the preserve, and they’ve planted numerous trees and shrubs to replace those that were no longer able to thrive.

Tate and Prutisto-Chang are also taking what they learned about combating invasive vines on the Edith Roberts site and applying that knowledge to a pilot project on another part of the campus. They are planting a number of American chestnut trees on a portion of the 500-acre Vassar Farm and Ecological Preserve that has been ravaged by vines.

Prutisto-Chang, an environmental studies major from Amherst, MA, took Ronsheim’s ecology class in the fall semester, and during an independent study project in the spring, she and Ronsheim devised the plan to plant the chestnut trees to create shade, mitigating the growth of the vines. She and Tate are planting the trees in two locations on the preserve this summer. “This is the first time I’ve been able to do my own research and it’s exciting to be putting some of what I learned in the classroom into practice,” she says.

The pilot project at Vassar Farm is especially timely because many, if not all, of the ash trees on the property are expected to die over the next five to ten years. An insect called the emerald ash borer has killed most ash trees in the Northeast over the past few years, and ash trees within a few miles of the Vassar campus have already been infested, Ronsheim says. Since ash trees comprise about 12 percent of the canopy at Vassar Farm, new shade trees, such as the fast-growing American chestnut, will have to be introduced to help retard the growth of invasive vines there, she explains.

If the experiment is successful at Vassar, managers of other forest preserves in the region are likely to copy it. “Ecologists elsewhere in the Hudson Valley are interested in what we’re doing here, and if it works, they’ll plant some chestnut trees on their land too,” Ronsheim says. “Our students are participating in a project that reaches well beyond the borders of Vassar. We’re thinking about the restoration and conservation of all of our northeastern forests. ”

Tate says he’s glad to be given the opportunity to take part in the restoration initiatives. “It’s exciting to be part of such a long-term project,” he says. “Years from now, when I come back to the campus for reunions, it will be interesting to see what has happened. When you’re this involved in the project, you really become attached to the land.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Thursday, July 14, 2016