Natural Regeneration in an Unnatural World at the UB Campus
P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica, a Missouri Botanical Garden Web Site
June 30, 2006

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Natural Regeneration in an Unnatural World
at the UB Campus

P. M. Eckel

 

            We are in many ways guided by concepts, and these often come in pairs: the natural and the unnatural being one pair, developed and undeveloped being another. Sometimes, when we place too much emphasis on these concepts, we can be lead into quandaries. One of these is the concept of natural regeneration as applied, in the practical world of lawn maintenance or maintenance-free lawns, to mowing and, maybe, modifying a former lawn, its soil and its productivity, with chemicals (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides).

 

 

            Natural regeneration, of course, is already happening in those few natural woodlots allowed to stand for various undefined reasons: as curios? as warnings? as potential refuges when our ideas do not pan out? This latter puts me in mind of the various collapses in the capitalist system during the early or middle stages of the Industrial Revolution, such as the shoe-making industry in New England in the colonial or early national period of the United States. When the shoe industry collapsed, the workers shut out of their plants could sustain themselves by fishing in streams, digging up clams and generally eating the weeds or other plants grown from land owned around their houses. One could live off the factory, or off nature.

 

            We in urban areas will have lost access to nature if our factories or industries collapse, unless we have a bit of a backyard and access to a few seeds. A "natural" woodlot is one that has its aboriginal ecology intact, but it has been variously thinned, as in the removal of the larger trees, or its species diversity selectively diminished, as when all the maples have been removed and scrawny oaks are allowed to remain. Where the seed bank is relatively intact and the woods can recover, given enough time and protection from further disturbance, there might be some natural recovery. But this is not the case with woods that spring up after the ecosystem has been destroyed, where only the general structure of the woods can recover (as trees, shrubs and herbs) but the seed bank has been destroyed and the native species diversity has been lost forever unless calculated effort is made to restore it.

 

 

        The concept of natural development and the lack of it is also curious. One can term as undeveloped a fully mature woodland remnant, such as exists as a sanctuary at the North, or Amherst, campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo, rich in strange native trees, in herbaceous things and mosses, pocked with the holes of animals, shaggy with the nests of birds in the dark canopy. However, acres of what is essentially a monoculture, a lawn that spreads nearly as far as the eye can see, is considered developed. The complexity of the rich, uncut woodland is here considered to be undeveloped, the enforced simplicity of the vast lawnscape, developed.

 

 

        On a walk north from the busy thoroughfare, Maple Road, which runs along the southern boundary of the North campus, going north through the exposed lawn areas to the cool, shady-looking spine of buildings that is the University complex, one will come across a pool of herbaceous diversity in the surrounding ocean of sameness. It is a “Natural Regeneration Area” where maintenance of the lawns has effectively ceased. Regeneration is apparently implicit in the expectation that no one would interfere with whatever seed or spore should happen onto the soil, should it germinate. The seed could come from anywhere: within the soil itself, on the furry sides of whatever animals inhabit the surrounding lawn, or on the feet or feathers of creatures that have flown into this area. Presumably, the deliberate introduction of native species would be considered unnatural, and perhaps not even regeneration at all.

 

            Since this campus is a University, one might expect such regeneration to have been established as part of an intellectual exercise, involving monitoring the populations in this area, perhaps comparing their dynamics with those of the mown areas, to areas along the sidewalks or roadsides, or even to the bits of landscaping that embellish the housing tracts. But I suspect there is no monitoring schedule in place.

 

            This attempt at regeneration appears to be perhaps mere sentimentality, a way of keeping a sense of nature with us, of escape when the culture fails in its ideology and we are left isolated and defenseless surrounded by nature as a partner who we no longer understand.

 

            Or it is simply a way of reducing the expense of paying a person to mow and modify with chemicals. The soil there is unusual on this campus. As one walks from Maple Road to the university’s Spine in the heat and dryness of August, 2005, disquietingly large fissures break up the soil into masses, like the tips of crevasses on the surface of a glacier, or the broken face of ground in tectonic regions. In these long fissures in the ground one can see in the lower depths larger pieces of rubble and one realizes that the whole sea of plant life lies on a fill bed on top of the native soil. The campus was originally a wetland.

 

            Not a swamp, bog or marsh, although these habitats may have existed beside the little streams that managed their way only a few decades ago, across this landscape, but a deep, beautiful wetland forest - the piece of which stands brooding in a dark line of tall trees north of the Spine complex, embedded within the overall University campus.

 

            Curiously, the architecture of the line of campus buildings seems to resemble a prairie refuge, subterranean, dark and cool with striking wells where cool, dark trees, in one nook a splendid Eastern Hemlock, emerge within the dark brick walls. The prairie motif extends out over the campus lawns, artificially meadow-like, a sort of prairie in the naked heat and sun of July and August, the months of summer vacation. A prairie there is truly an oddity, when the natural conditions call for a deep woods full of the tracks of water in pools, of wet pits naked of vegetation, dry in summer and autumn in some pits, still with a surface of water in other areas over which the tall trees stand. The remnants of the proper habitat are to be found in a small wood maintained as a protected area to the north of the spine - the Letchworth Woods.

 

            From a delightful expression of nature's development, the soil has been stripped and buried, drained of its moisture and rendered as sterile as could be, as undeveloped as possible. Nature cannot develop such a site that has suffered digging, draining, and leveling.

 

            Interested people within the Niagara Region along the Niagara River in both the New York and Ontario, Canada, have Natural Regeneration areas, otherwise simply known as No-Mow areas. There is little thought involved in this process, apparently.

 

            The concepts of nature embedded in the mind of those in authority over such areas seem to be that nature is not much different from abandonment or neglect. Nature is a vast emptiness. Nature is a lack of development. Such regeneration zones, botanically anyway, support enfeebled natural processes and very little but weeds, but another interesting concept springs forth: a species bridge between the natural and unnatural, the developed and undeveloped.

 

Daisy-fleabane (Erigeron annuus), although appearing almost always with weedy species assemblages, is, as with all other area species in the genus, native to Western New York and adjacent Ontario. The common name, fleabane, indicates its use against the flea.

 

            It would be an unhappy thought that the impoverished plants that struggle out of such areas, escaping from unnatural soils and contaminating plants in the surrounding lawns, were to be thought of as nature. They rise up, or germinate, like liberated prisoners transported far from their homelands by some horticultural conqueror. Although the process is more complex than this, it is mostly these species, far from their homelands, that are escaped from their ecological or economic enslavement and that grow and establish themselves in these colonies.

 

            Walking through the Regeneration area at the University campus in early August, one does step into a different world. The lawn mown down to below one’s ankles vanishes and vegetation as high as the knees springs up. Rather than the lawn's broad, carpet-like uniformity, various plants grow in clumps, at different heights and in small areas. The primary animal beneficiary of these areas seems to be insects, for these leap out of the fountain-like arrangement of different plants. They seem like life, liberated, jumping out for joy at you, the haggard vegetation set free from the bonds of mowing offer the beauty of their flowers, purple loosestrife (the dread Lythrum salicaria casting a feverish purple as they overwhelm our marshes), the yellow of Bastard Toadflax (a striking name for Linaria vulgaris, named because of the resemblance of the leaves to cultivated flax), Queen Anne's Lace (Daucus carota). Which queen Anne? This is the stock of our cultivated carrot. The blue of Ragged Sailors (Cichorium intybus, which the food industry has tortured into luscious Chickory).

 

      Amid the flowering species occur the brown fruits of the spring plants, Rumex crispus, its leaves wavy (crisped) and its brown spire of fruit shattering to the touch as though crisped in an oven. The little crucifer named after Saint Barbara: Barbarea vulgaris, thrusts up its pods bursting with seed, the rosettes of succulent green leaves ready to spring forth again next May. What look like Black Mustard (Brassica nigra) is also in fruit, the pods close to their stem.

 

      Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), the kind that is short of growth and escapes the mower's blades, forms oval areas, Flea bane (Erigeron annuus), by the sound of it, should be tied in a bag and put around a pet's nect, a little Polygonum neglectum, once considered rare in our area, has grown up here, a bit of Fuller's Teasel, to tease the woolen threads (Dipsacus fullonum). Perhaps in June this field shown with white daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). Along with carrot and mustard is the lettuce ancestor (Lactuca serriola). A plant the native Americans called White Man's Foot (Plantago major, the Common Plantain), is diminutive in mown lawns, but when allowed to develop to its fullest dimension the leaves can be the size of a man's foot here on the campus. There are a few stems of Saint John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum) and plenty of the purple-flowered Centaurea jacea (Brown Knapweed); Potentilla norvegica with yellow flowers and leaflets in threes is dispersed about this area. Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria) sends its tall spires of seed-balls up, its beautiful flowers evident earlier in the season.

 

            The little thistle, Cirsium arvense, or Field Thistle, was scattered about, but as though a presage of things to come, there were small plants of the Bull Thistle, Cirsium vulgare, that in years to come will be taller than the reader and armed with spines on the leaves and stems.

 

            Although weeds and escaped from their cultivated labors, one can see these herbs were subjected to gardens for their beauty (Linaria, Leucanthemum), their food value (the carrot, mustard, lettuce) their medicinal properties (these wishful only, as in Prunella). Little slaves these plants are, or were. Promiscuous they are as well, as seen in the Latin name vulgaris or common, also an indication of their aggressiveness. The Latin names are not meant to drive away the ordinary person, but many of them, especially those applied by Linnaeus, were for the very useful purpose of identifying species of some use to people in hard times for their food value (epithets such as oleraceus, sativus) or their medicinal value (officinalis), or their use in productive business (the teasel of the fuller). But realistically, these names probably most benefited the nurserymen who deliberately cultivated them for specified markets.

           

            Like the Eurasian wetland-invasive Purple Loosestrife stems (Lythrum salicaria), the one wet-loving but undoubtedly native herb seen on this little August stroll in the regeneration area, was a member of the Rose family: Geum laciniatum. It is the sole example seen on this brief moment of a plant typical of the way conditions were before the wet woodland that preceded this architectural prairie was destroyed.            

 

            Mowing was sustained on the verges of the road that bordered the western margin of the regeneration area. Species that survive mowing in this verge were essentially different from those of the regeneration area and consisted of two types, those that were able to grow below the mowing blades by sprawling, or by being able to set seed after their stems were truncated, or those that had the capacity to elongate their stems quickly before the surrounding grass had a chance to recover. An example of the latter is the Autumn or Fall Dandelion, Leontodon autumnalis. This lawn species is spectacularly successful along the verges of the Niagara Parkway in Canada where it defies mowing, the fruiting heads spring up above the grass on millions of skinny stems (scapes) and manage to release their plumed seeds to the wind before the next round of cutting.

 

        The Mouse-eared Chickweed (Cerastium glomeratum) also enjoys the verge. Chickweed is enjoyed by small birds that love to forage on this plant, the seeds and stems of which could be brought home to the Victorian drawing room Dicky-birds (canaries). Artemisia biennis Willd., Biennial Wormwood, an herb whose flowers are as green as its leaves, also enjoys the verge. Carpets of the rich, buttery-yellow Lotus corniculatus (Bird-foot Trefoil: the pods are arranged like little bird talons) come into flower in early August. Mowing makes their mat-like growth dense and beautiful - in the regeneration area it becomes leggy and overgrown. The Chicory and Queen Anne's Lace are conspicuous along Federal Interstates and other roadsides where the verge is uncut. They tend to dominate these areas before the Goldenrods and Asters begin to compete with them.

 

      Although the big plantain (Plantago major) flourished in the regeneration area, the English Plantain, with narrow leaves, grew up out of the mown area. The Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) presently only in bud, will greet in September with their yellow splendor, the new students, but I saw no evidence of the riot of Asters in old fallow fields along the Interstate that will come forth in October, the end of the general growing season. Both genera of plants, both of which reach the highest level of species diversity anywhere in the world in the northeaster United States and Canada, are to be expected in this plot on the campus lawn.

 

            What do the grasses, of which we only see the vegetative green parts, look like when allowed to fully develop? From the look of the grasses in the regeneration area there is Redtop (Agrostis gigantea), Timothy (Phleum pratense), Quack-grass (Agropyron repens), Orchard Grass (Dactylis glomerata), and doubtless the dominant grass is Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis), each with their own distinctive way of displaying their fruits in their time.

 

            The species of the mown verges differ from those in the meadow, but there is yet another habitat where unique species grow: immediate to the curbs beside the roads a lovely, delicate flower grows, close to the winter salt, in long rows against the curb, the lavender flowers of the Sand Spurry (Spergularia media) once thought rare in our region, but now to be found all along the roadsides of UB and the Interstate system between Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania, all the way through Indiana at least. Rye Grass, Setaria viridis, also grows in this habitat.

 

            A special flora also exists in the cracks between the bricks in the sidewalks, these primarily species that cannot compete with the tall grasses. These are very low growing sprawlers that can take not only mowing but trampling, the most conspicuous plant being Polygonum aviculare. Yet another special habitat are triangles of dirt such as are found when two sidewalks meet at right angles: another Polygonum comes up there, Polygonum achoreum and a plant that resembles it, the Common Purslane, Portulaca oleracea, the latter of which, as its name implies, is edible.

 

            Nature demands to use the soil like birds demand the air in which to fly. What determines which species show themselves depends upon factors such as salt tolerance, ability to extend a fruiting stem quickly, to produce fruit when only two-inches high (when the typical stem is over four-feet high), to withstand trampling. One of the most important attributes to success in a no-mow zone is the ability to grow so tall so fast that the low growers fail to get sun light. The way to get rid of Dandelions is simply to let the grass grow tall. Probably few of the verge species could survive in the no-mow area.

 

            One of the factors controlling the species types in the regeneration area is their distance from other sources of seed. Out on Maple Road, for example, the aggressive sister of the Fuller's Teasel, Cut-leaf Teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus), new to our area, seemingly first established at Buckhorn Island State Park, spreading across Grand Island to the Buffalo area, just on the margin of the UB campus. It is not yet in the regeneration area. None of the native species in the ancestral forest north of the spine buildings have reestablished themselves in the regeneration area.

 

            If, by the term natural, one had the expectation that native species would spring up somehow like Cadmus and the dragon's teeth of the ancestors of Thebes, one would be very disappointed. Except for the Geum of wet soil, every species seen was alien or an alien strain of plants.

 

            Yet behind the architectural Spine of the North campus buildings is the Letchworth Woods. Natural regeneration is most satisfactory adjacent to a native woodland. There are no trees or shrubs in the natural regeneration area. What would be the successional future of this plot, and how long would it take? What are we to make of the new soil that will be forever different from that on which the original (the natural) wet woodland developed?

 

       The ultimate regeneration is the landscape existing after the retreat of the glaciers that obliterated everything beneath miles of ice or drowned the soil beneath glacial lakes, such as Lake Tonawanda for which we owe the existence of Letchworth and other wet woods along the Niagara River. How priceless are the ecosystem museums retained in diminutive and diminishing refugia, vulnerable as are all museums, as models of life.

 

       The sweet peace of the small plot of oak trees and birdsong adjacent to the Maple Road was a contrast ti the hostile voice and hurry of that street as I entered the UB campus by the Flint Entrance.  The nearby Center for Tomorrow may some time celebrate a future where more and more areas of native habitat will be restored, perhaps by our colleges and universities, using these sanctuaries as templates.

 

Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), like the Daisy Fleabane above, is also a native species commonly associated with weedy plants in disturbed ground.  Its common name also indicates its
usefulness as a medicine.

 

The following is a list of species mentioned in the above text, and the asterisk indicates species native outside our region. Species that may occur in late winter, spring and early summer were not seen in the month of August. In future years, this population of species will be increased by newcomers, and others will disappear in the orderly process of succession. Interested students on campus may wish to start a small herbarium by plucking these plants (weeds they are, all, even the few native ones are opportunistic), pressing and drying them, and labeling them with the place and date for future reference. None are protected, all are common and to be found in all neglected and abandoned soils in the surrounding vicinity. Students may also enjoy discovering in what part of the world these plants originated. These plants are, as all of the citizens of this country are, non-native organisms.

 

*Agrostis gigantea Roth, Redtop (Graminae or Poaceae)

*Agropyron repens (L.) Beauv., Quack-grass (Graminae or Poaceae, is now technically called Elytrigia repens (L.) Nevski)

*Artemisia biennis Willd., Biennial Wormwood (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Barbarea vulgaris R. Br., Winter Cress, Yellow Rocket, Creesy-Greens (Cruciferae or Brassicaceae)

*Brassica nigra  (L.)Koch, Black Mustard (Cruciferae or Brassicaceae)

*Centaurea jacea L., Brown Knapweed (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Cerastium glomeratum Thuill., Mouse-ear Chickweed (Caryophyllaceae)

*Cichorium intybus L., Chicory, Blue Sailors, Tattered Sailors, Cornflower (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Cirsium arvense (L.) Scop., Canada Thistle (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Cirsium vulgare (Savi) Tenore, Bull-thistle (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Dactylus glomerata L., Orchard-grass (Graminae or Poaceae)

*Daucus carota L., Wild Carrot, Queen Anne's Lace (Umbelliferae or Apiaceae)

*Dipsacus fullonum  L. Common Teasel, Fuller's Teasel (Dipsacaceae, known in earlier, but recent manuals as Dipsacus sylvestris Huds.)

*Dipsacus laciniatus L., Cut-leaf Teasel (Dipsacaceae)

[native] Erigeron annuus  (L.) Pers., Slender White-top, Daisy-fleabane, White Scabious (Compositae or Asteraceae)

[native] Geum laciniatum Murray, Rough Avens (Rosaceae)

*Hypericum perforatum L., Common St. John's-wort (Clusiaceae)

*Lactuca serriola L., Prickly Lettuce (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Leontodon autumnalis L., Fall Dandelion (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Leucanthemum vulgare Lam., Ox-eye Daisy, Field Daisy ((Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Linaria vulgaris Mill., Butter and Eggs. Bastard Toad-flax (Scrophulariaceae)

*Lotus corniculata L., Bird-foot Trefoil (Leguminosae or Fabaceae)

*Lythrum salicaria  L., Purple Loosestrife (Lythraceae)

*Phleum pratense L., Timothy (Graminae or Poaceae)

*Plantago lanceolata L., English Plantain, Ripplegrass (Plantaginaceae)

*Plantago major L., Broad-leaved Plantain, White-man's Foot (Plantaginaceae)

*Poa pratensis L., Kentucky Bluegrass (Graminae or Poaceae)

*Polygonum achoreum Blake, Homeless Knotweed (Polygonaceae), "homeless" perhaps because no one seems to know whether this species is native or an introduction.

*Polygonum aviculare L. Common Knotweed (Polygonaceae)

*Polygonum neglectum Besser  Common Knotweed (Polygonaceae, considered to be the same   species as P. aviculare)

*Portulaca oleracea L., Common Purslane (Portulacaceae)

*Potentilla norvegica L., Rough Cinquefoil (Rosaceae, 'cinquefoil' is the name for most of these Potentillas, including the three-leaved species)

[native] Prunella vulgaris L., Heal-all (Labiatae or Lamiaceae)

*Rumex crispus  L. Curled Dock, Yellow or Sour Dock (Polygonaceae)

*Setaria viridis (L.) Beauv.), Green Foxtail, Bottlegrass (Gramineae or Poaceae)

[native] Solidago Canadensis L. Canada or Common Goldenrod (Compositae or Asteraceae)

*Spergularia media (L.) C. Presl ex Griseb., Margined Sand-spurry (Caryophyllaceae)

*Verbascum blattaria L., Moth Mullein (Scrophulariaceae)

 

Click here for gallery of additional photos with annotations.

 

 

 

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