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UW-Eau Claire gardens are part of National Science Foundation study

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire biology student Cassidy Michels helped plant poplar trees Sept. 25 at Bollinger Fields as part of a National Science Foundation-supported research program studying the adaptiveness of tree species in varied climates.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire has created mini gardens at Bollinger Fields as part of a National Science Foundation-supported research program studying the adaptiveness of tree species in varied climates.

UW-Eau Claire is among 18 arboretums and universities in North America participating in the NSF program in collaboration with North Dakota State University and ArbNet, a worldwide network of tree-focused gardens and practitioners.

“This is great for both UW-Eau Claire and the broader community,” says Dr. Nora Mitchell, assistant professor of biology, who is leading the UW-Eau Claire project with Daria Hutchinson, landscape architect in the university’s facilities/grounds department. “We have the opportunity to participate in exciting research and utilize the strength of multiple institutions, while also focusing on our local community at the university and involving the Chippewa Valley.”

Nearly 100 poplar trees were planted for the project by volunteers Sept. 25 at Bollinger Fields and will be monitored over the next three to five years by UW-Eau Claire faculty, staff and students.

The planting was UW-Eau Claire’s 2020 Arbor Day event for Tree Campus USA, now known as Tree Campus Higher Education. UW-Eau Claire has been a Tree Campus USA campus since 2017.

Hutchinson says the research project will highlight UW-Eau Claire’s arboretum and expand its development by enhancing educational and public programming. The arboretum was accredited as a level-one arboretum in 2017 and officials hope to expand to level two in the coming year.

“In my field, a landscape architect blends science, art, vision and thought to understand how the environment works and determines how to deal with increasingly complex relationships between the built and natural world,” Hutchinson says. “This study seemed to incorporate that idea along with informing students to think about climate change and the role of trees in adapting and mitigating its effects.”

Mitchell and Hutchinson heard about the research project separately through North Dakota State University’s Dr. Jill Hamilton, assistant professor of plant evolutionary genomics, and agreed that UW-Eau Claire’s arboretum was an ideal site for mini gardens.

The NSF’s plant genome research program aims to pair scientific research with community outreach and education. Each of the mini gardens of poplar trees at 18 sites around the country will be composed of replicated sets of plants to be studied to determine the impact genetic variation, ancestry and environment have on plant growth.

The overarching goal of the study, Mitchell says, is to further understand the genetic basis for climate adaptation in tree species and determine whether hybridization can allow tree species to better handle climate change.

Biology students at UW-Eau Claire will participate in research and potentially service-learning projects at the garden.

UW-Eau Claire junior Thu Nguyen, a biology major from Vietnam who is a pre-med student, has discovered she has a passion for ecology and the poplar tree research gives her a better understanding of nature.

“I would love to see the poplar adaptation to Wisconsin’s environment, specifically the phenotypic display that they would have compared to other locations,” Nguyen says. “Also, I really hope the poplar garden will reach its ideal seven-year mark instead of three.”

Another UW-Eau Claire student, Lydia McNabb, a senior from Baraboo majoring in biology-ecology and environmental biology, was part of a student team on sunflower research this summer with Mitchell. The poplar study fits with her interest in botany.

“I always wanted to give research a try but I thought it would be boring and I would hate it,” McNabb says. “Luckily, my experience has been the opposite. Field work, being outside, and hands-on learning through courses and opportunities like these are always fun and worthwhile experiences.

Mitchell says project organizers hope to obtain additional NSF funding for research experiences for undergraduates. The grant would fund additional UW-Eau Claire student research in the summers and allow exploration of other aspects of the trees, such as leaf evolution and herbivore resistance.

In the future, a middle school curriculum may be developed for Chippewa Valley students to participate in classroom and field activities to collect data and test hypotheses to monitor tree growth and the seasonal timing of events. Pending the status of COVID-19 and local health and safety regulations, the hands-on science study for middle schoolers could begin in spring 2021, Mitchell says.