Building from the ground up: Bell Botanical Gardens aims to restore native plant life along the Red Cedar River

Building from the ground up: Bell Botanical Gardens aims to restore native plant life along the Red Cedar River

The W.J. Beal Botanical Gardens is implementing a restoration initiative to help ensure the longevity of the heart of Michigan State University – the Red Cedar River.

The riverbank assessment began in 2018, and since then, staff at WJ Beal have taken steps to plant native plant life growth along the red cedar area and in natural areas on campus.

Although the red cedar is, in a way, the campus’s “tree of life,” that doesn’t mean it’s problem-free, said W. J. Beal Botanical Garden’s interim director, Dr. Alan Prather.

“Like many urban rivers, it has a lot of challenges,” Prather said. “Things like erosion, things like invasive species, things like development or agriculture up to the river bank. These are all challenges for a healthy river.”

Addressing these issues represents an opportunity for the park to connect with the community, Prather said.

East Lansing resident Chloe Janacek said the restoration is important because it helps community members find their place at MSU again.

“In this case, the invaders took control,” Janacek said. “So I imagine, for a lot of people, it’s healing for things to go back to the way they were supposed to be or the way they were before they got messed up.”

Carolyn Miller, the park’s plant registrar, said it was distressing to see the riverbank covered in so many invasive species.

“I can go down to the river, and it’s full of honeysuckle and buckthorn,” Miller said. “It breaks my heart because when I was a student, I didn’t really see that.”

Miller said collaboration with the MSU community is critical to restoring the red cedar to its former glory and perhaps even taking the restoration process beyond the local area.

“I will help future conservation students,” Miller said. “I give them a sense that this is what we can do, and you can take it wherever you go when you leave campus.”

Recently, in celebration of the garden’s 150th anniversary, Miller helped community members plant 150 pieces of native plants or young seedlings. These plugs had stronger, larger root structures that helped reinforce the riverbank and cultivate a suitable ecosystem for the animals, Miller said.

“I set up my little table, and I’m going to walk with the people and dig a hole,” Miller said. “…Then we grow sedges, and we put them in columbine, which is a beautiful, ephemeral spring plant that pollinators love, as well as hummingbirds.”

In addition to emphasizing the importance of conducting research, Miller said she also encourages community members to get out and look at their neighborhood and its needs.

“You have to do your homework first,” Miller said. “Find out the habitat I’m working with, and then look up that information.”

Miller said she and her students used the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, or MNFI, as a resource and recommended it for local environmental research. She said looking at ecosystems at the individual level is key and encourages anyone to take action.

“Remove your grass and plant native plants,” Miller said. “Even if it’s just a little. It makes a big difference.”

Prather said that by showcasing these customs, he hopes to promote a culture of restoration through the project.

“Our hope is that people will come and see what we do and then take it out into the world and help improve the rest of the world,” Prather said. “I think it’s kind of a revitalization process.”

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