Stewarding (and Learning) Our Land

By Maya Sarkar, on

When you look out into Longwood’s natural lands, you may see beautiful, expansive landscapes. Spend a few more minutes looking, and you may observe the layers of a forest or the swales of color and texture of a meadow. Take a couple more moments to look even closer, and you may become aware of the different species that are present, from Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) with their golden plumes of flowers to Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) covered with pollinating insects. Natural lands are, by nature, layered and complex. The fields of stewardship and restoration ecology related to natural lands are equally complex—and vital—because we inhabit a world driven by human impact. Where do we—as people—start to heal places negatively impacted by humans? At Longwood, how do we—Longwood’s Land Stewardship and Ecology team—work to address and advance these complex systems of study here at Longwood and beyond? 

A view into the canopy of tall trees, looking up from the woodland floor.
Longwood’s natural landscapes also include great forests and magnificent trees, and the Land Stewardship and Ecology team works within all of Longwood’s natural communities, from meadows to forests to streams. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

Here at Longwood, how do we know how do know what areas need help healing versus what places need protecting? How do we know what areas need new plantings or what places need mowing? That is where our Ecological Baseline Study--established by the Land Stewardship and Ecology team under the direction of Associate Director, Land Stewardship and Ecology Lea Johnson—comes in. Part of Longwood’s very own long-term ecological research program, the Ecological Baseline Study began in 2021 with a vegetation study that allows us to see what plant communities make up Longwood’s landscapes, as well as assess the structure and species composition of those communities. It also sets the baseline for analyzing how our plant communities may change in the future.

Closeup of seedheads of meadow plants
Longwood’s Meadow Garden itself is a plant community frozen in time of ecological succession. Without ecological disturbance like mowing and prescribed burns, most meadow communities in this region will succeed to forest in a natural progression. However, the Land Stewardship and Ecology team makes the effort to keep the Meadow Garden a meadow, notably as high-quality meadow habitat becomes less common throughout the region. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

The vegetation baseline study involved many parts, lots of collaboration, and many field days. We mapped all of the plant communities on Longwood’s 750+ acres of natural lands, resulting in the recording of more than 200 plant communities that create a mosaic landscape across Longwood. We sampled the vegetation in more than 50 forests and meadows at Longwood—including measuring the diameter of over 800 trees and identifying hundreds of species—and established these sampling locations as permanent plots that can be monitored for years to come. To accomplish all of this in one year, we partnered with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program at Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and local botanist Janet Ebert.

A botanist bends over meadow plants while holding an ipad.
The baseline vegetation study of the long-term ecological research program involved mapping, describing, and classifying the plant communities across Longwood’s natural landscape. This process included identifying all species of plants in each research plot. Here, botanist Claire Ciafre from the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program at Western Pennsylvania Conservancy identifies species with help of botanical keys stored on an iPad. Photo by Maya Sarkar.
A botanist, protected from the sun and insects by a hat, long pants, and long sleeves, stands knee-high in a field of plants.
Researchers need to carry all the right equipment in order to have a good field day. Equipment includes full length attire and hat--to protect against the sun, ticks, and scratching plants—and enough water and snacks for the day. It also includes all surveying equipment needed, from a compass and flagging tape to an iPad and phone. Lastly, a trusty backpack to carry everything in and a positive attitude to make it through both beautiful and frustrating moments. Here, botanist Claire Ciafre from the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program at Western Pennsylvania Conservancy records the location of a sampling plot using our custom-built GIS data recording system. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

Why is all this work for the vegetation baseline study so important? Simply put, we first need to see where we are now to then see, and hopefully direct, where we are going. With the vegetation baseline study and long-term ecological research project, we can track change in our ecosystems to understand how they progress and how stewardship practices help relieve negative impacts on our plant communities. Combined with detailed records of land stewardship practices and tests of different approaches, it will help us answer such questions as: What is the best removal method for Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)? What is the best mowing regime for our meadows? What planting techniques are best for our forests? The answers to these questions aid our own management and will help us aid the broader community of ecological restoration researchers, stewards, and landowners—as we all shape the land we live on.

A botanist carries a polka-dotted umbrella in a meadow of tall plants
Fieldwork can get hot! This photo was taken on 90+ F day. Surprisingly, the umbrella is not being used to keep the humans taking the data cool, but is mainly used to keep our field computers from overheating. Photo by Maya Sarkar.
A large green mantis perches on the edge of a field notebook.
Sharing my field notes with an insect—the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), an invasive species. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

As the Land Stewardship and Ecology intern, I was fortunate to be deeply involved with the vegetation baseline study during my internship year here at Longwood. From fieldwork and collaborating with project members, to writing protocols, training team members, managing data, and more, the study has consumed most of my time here … but I am happy to have played a role in laying the foundation of this long-term ecological research project, and helping ensure it continues into the future.

An intern in a dark green t-shirt kneels among dry meadow plants to collect samples in a plastic bag.
The baseline vegetation study has consumed much of my time during my internship at Longwood Gardens, including taking aboveground plant biomass samples from a subset of research plots as seen here. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

Working in stewardship, it’s hard not to notice environmental stressors, like invasive species, when looking at natural areas—and it’s impossible to ignore their complexities. Each species has its own unique challenges, the research to handle a given situation might not yet exist, and the work itself can be challenging, right down to the strenuous fieldwork that comes with it. So, while I see the beautiful hues of Goldenrod and the plentiful pollinators on mountain mint, I also notice Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) with its choking stems that climb and swarm just about anything and multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) with its red stems full of curved thorns that can create ensnaring thickets.

A field of yellow goldenrod backed by hills, trees, and sky at dusk
Multiple species of Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) add bursts of yellow to the Meadow Garden, creating a golden landscape full of complex layers in the late summer, as shown in this September 2021 photo. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

You can see human impacts such as these all over the world. Invasive species such as multiflora rose still invade and dominate areas of natural lands in the Mid-Atlantic. Increasing levels of carbon dioxide and atmospheric temperatures are leading to ocean acidification and coral reef bleaching. Land-use change has made prairies dwindle to exist in less than 1% of their former range in Minnesota (my home state). Most environments can’t escape the impacts of human activity and many of them need human aid to avoid drastic changes like ecosystem regime shifts, desertification, and more. These issues are being caused by human activity and by human action, they can be undone.

The sun rises above a meadow in the foreground and woodland trees in the background.
Plant communities and ecosystems develop and change over much longer time scales compared to a human’s life, so the long-term research project will continue long past my time here at Longwood Gardens. Although we may operate on different timescales, I know that each sunrise begins the day with new potential for everyone—ecosystems, plants, and humans alike. Photo by Maya Sarkar.

While we are excited to see what results and answers may appear through the life of this study, this long-term research program is, as it implies, long and will continue long past my time here at Longwood Gardens. Plant communities and ecosystems develop and change over much longer time scales compared to a human’s life. So, as I wrap up my year here at Longwood and visit the baseline research plots for the last time, I am happy knowing that many will keep returning there for a very long time.

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