By Mark Dewart, Science Department Chair and US Science Teacher
Upper School students in Kathy Madren’s Environmental Science classes have been conducting a botanical survey of the woods around Park Tudor on the north and west ends of the campus. By carefully documenting the plant species that are present and mapping their distributions, the students have uncovered evidence of past stewardship and signs that our woods are a dynamic, changing place.
In one part of our woods there is single towering western larch tree (Larix occidentalis). The western larch is a conifer or “evergreen” that naturally occurs only in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike most conifers, the Western larch needles turn brilliant yellow then fall from the tree in winter. The Lilly family were the previous owners of the land that Park Tudor now inhabits. Known to have a great interest in plants, the Lilly family must have obtained and planted this remarkable species on our campus. As Mrs. Madren’s students continue surveying and mapping the plant populations in our woods, they may discover other botanical relics from the Lilly family’s effort to manage and care for the woods.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, Indiana residents began planting an ornamental bush around their residences called Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii). Our campus woods reflect this change in landscaping practice. Bush honeysuckle originated in China. Without herbivores or fire to control seedling growth, the understory of woods in the eastern United states in the last 50 years has been overgrown with these bushes that eventually become 15-20 feet tall. Bush honeysuckle form leaves early in the spring and create a dense shade that eliminates spring and summer wildflowers that are familiar inhabitants of the eastern forest community. When the Environmental Science students looked at areas of the Marott Park woods that lacked bush honeysuckle, they found significant numbers and kinds of wildflowers that were rare or missing in Park Tudor’s woods.
Knowledge and awareness has now matured into action. After school and on weekends, Mrs. Madren’s students began clearing the bush honeysuckle out of our woods. Students in other classes saw the transformation that was underway and contributed to the arduous work of sawing and hauling the honeysuckle. Last spring and summer, piles of honeysuckle branches as big as garages regularly appeared on the western edge of campus near the woods until they were hauled away and chipped up for mulch. By the end of the fall semester, Park Tudor students had cleared the honeysuckle from the woods along the western edge of campus from the tennis courts north to the Cagle Gate.
Seeds have been raining down on the soils of Park Tudor’s woods since the glaciers retreated and forests covered a region inhabited by North America’s First Nations. Many of these seeds remain viable for astonishingly long periods of time, waiting to germinate until adequate amounts of light and moisture are present. This spring, greater amounts of light will be reaching the forest floor in Park Tudor’s woods. The Environmental Science classes will see if the seed germination from the soil’s seed bank repopulates our woods with some of the spring wildflowers that are still found in Marott Park.
Mrs. Madren’s Environmental Science classes will continue mapping the distribution of plants in the woods to come to a greater understanding of the ways the Lilly family’s stewardship and the more recent honeysuckle invasion has shaped the forested areas of our campus. Students will continue to be a dominant ecological force that is shaping our woods by removing the honeysuckle on the north end of campus. Walking through our woods and coming upon that lone western larch you wonder “How did that get here?” In a region where honeysuckle is increasingly common and spring wildflowers are scarce, we are confident that future visitors to our campus woods will notice an unexpected abundance of spring and summer wildflowers. They will be reminded of the conservation-minded school that made this happen.