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13 August 1999

Vol. III, No. 3

Feature Article

Where have all the wildflowers gone?

Biologist helps restore woodland ecology

By Hope Green

As a child, CAS Biology Professor Richard Primack spent many summer days exploring the Hammond Woods bordering Chestnut Hill and Newton, Mass. He still does. But as an adult, the lifelong Newton resident spends as much of his time in the forest for work as for pleasure.

Primack, who specializes in botany and conservation biology, is lending his expertise in a volunteer effort to restore indigenous wildflowers along the city's stream banks and in its precious remaining woodlands. While many municipalities think preserving undeveloped green spaces is important, he says, the Newton flower project aims to revive the essential nature of those areas.

"The quality of life in a community is related to the amount of open space it has," he says, "but it's also related to the quality of that space. So we're not just measuring the number of open acres, but the extent to which they can be enjoyed. People can take pride in their local environment by restoring it to its original health."

Plows, bulldozers, and other forms of human interference with nature have wiped out wildflower populations in the suburbs, and in turn, birds and a variety of insects once drawn to their blossoms for food have left town.

Conserving natural, biologically diverse open spaces is of major concern to the city's volunteer beautification team, the Newton Pride Committee. Last fall, the civic group expanded beyond its usual efforts -- planting horticultural favorites -- and launched a three-year project to restore such native flowers as blue flag iris and marsh marigold along the city's most popular footpaths. Small stakes in the ground identify the flowers for hikers.

Committee members recruited Newton public schoolchildren to help in the planting -- and sought Primack's help in doing the job correctly. He and his BU students have been conducting fieldwork on wildflowers since the late 1980s, both in Newton and in the Middlesex Fells reservation, north of Boston. Their experiments help to determine which habitat variables enable particular species to thrive, and why.

"We started out doing purely academic research, but it very quickly became clear that our work had applied significance," Primack says. "We are trying to take the lessons we've learned from our research and bring them into a public project."

In working with the Newton Pride Committee, Primack and graduate student Mita Bhattacharya (GRS'00) are monitoring how many seedlings are being planted and where, along with their survival rate and reproductive success. Bhattacharya will also tally the cost of the restoration effort.

Hammond Woods

Adam Belanger (CAS'01), CAS Biology Professor Richard Primack, Mita Bhattacharya (GRS'00), and Grace Kwong (CAS'00) (from left) examine bumblebees that inhabit the Hammond Woods in Newton, Mass. As part of a wildflower study, the team is trying to determine whether human barriers such as roads interfere with bees' travel patterns, which would have implications for pollination of the flowers. Photo by Fred Sway

Land under siege
Wildflower populations have been depleted for a number of reasons, says Primack, including overgrazing by deer and fox and the building of roads over natural habitats. Changes in hydrology such as diverted streams are also a factor, as are pollution and trampling by hikers and bikers who stray from designated paths.

Other communities have attempted wildflower restorations, Primack adds, but haphazardly and without good science to back them up. "We're trying to plant native species in appropriate locations, where they could have grown naturally," he explains.

Elsewhere in Newton, Bhattacharya and Adam Belanger (CAS'01), a participant in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, are assisting in a state project to convert an abused stretch of land along the Charles River to an attractive public walkway. The land targeted for cleanup stretches along both sides of the river, from Watertown Square to Commonwealth Avenue, near the Newton Marriott.

In a one-mile segment of the park-in-progress, near Watertown, the students are removing exotic tangled brush and planting native shrubs with attractive flowers and edible fruit.

"My students are evaluating whether restoring native vegetation is actually helping -- whether the plants are flowering, what kinds of insects are visiting, what fruits they are producing and which birds are eating them, and whether new seedlings are coming up," Primack explains.

The MDC acquired the land a century ago, but turned a blind eye as businesses began encroaching on the property following World War II, according to Dan Driscoll, an MDC senior planner. Driscoll tapped Primack's botanical expertise in the restoration last year after convincing most of the offending businesses to retreat to their borders.

The University's research, says Driscoll, "is helping to build a case for state environmental agencies to plant native plants along river corridors. They provide food for songbirds and attract more native animals than ornamentals like flowering cherry trees do. The cherry trees may look pretty," he adds, "but they won't have the same benefits as high-bush blueberry."

Competing interests
In Newton as in other suburbs, demand for new houses and school buildings is exacting a toll on dwindling green spaces. Nonprofit landholders in the city are selling off wooded lots for elderly and single-family housing, much to their neighbors' dismay.

The trend concerns Primack, a member of the Newton Conservators. On the one hand, he understands the financial pressures faced by seminaries and other private institutions that own parcels of undeveloped real estate with soaring value. "But what the Conservators are doing," he says, "is urging the city to develop a more coherent plan toward open space, so where development occurs, it occurs in a way that minimizes the impact on the environment."

Indeed, developers have their eyes trained on several woodlands near Primack's plantings. Trees are being felled to make room for a soccer field next to Edmands Park in North Newton. In central Newton, near the Webster conservation area, a forested portion of the Andover Newton Theological School campus will be built on. In addition, Boston Edison plans to sell its property, known as Kessler Woods, to the highest bidder. Kessler Woods is adjacent to the Oak Hill neighborhood's Sawmill Brook nature sanctuary, where volunteers have planted several species, including cardinal flower and columbine.

Hapless trails
The local population explosion is contributing to overuse of the city's remaining woodlands. A small percentage of irresponsible mountain bikers are causing trails to widen and erode down to a rocky surface, rather than the soft, springy soil that contributes to the pleasure of walking in the forest. "Another issue," says Primack, "is that the more people you have, the more litter and the more forest fires you get. Also more air pollution."

The professor hopes the wildflower restoration project will increase public awareness of the need for sound scientific methods in protecting the wilderness. Ultimately, he says, wildflowers make hiking in the woods a richer experience, and he spreads his conservation message by speaking to Newton community groups.

"I've been involved in a very interesting transition," he notes. "I've moved from pure ecology to conservation biology to public education."

In the next three years, Primack plans to turn more of his attention to tropical flora, beginning with a sabbatical in Malaysia, where he will study rain forests under a grant from the National Science Foundation. He has also received a Bullard Fellowship from Harvard University to compare different rain forest areas of the world. But he intends to continue his conservation research and writing back home.

Primack's two children, who attend Newton schools, are among the pupils helping with the wildflower restoration. He feels a strong sense of commitment to the project, he says -- not only because it encourages public participation in science, but because "it combines my academic interests with my outreach activities as a citizen, and my involvement as a parent."