Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Fall/Winter 2012 (November 16, 2012)

Past in Bloom, Thanks to Oak Savanna

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November 16, 2012
By Hilary Dickinson

Hundreds of years before the Center for the Sciences existed, an oak savanna alive with wildflowers and grasses thrived in the same general location.

The area where Chamberlin Hall stood until 2008 was once occupied by oak trees and an understory of grasses and wildflowers, according to Yaffa Grossman, professor and chair of the biology department. Chamberlin’s demolition left a gaping hole, which has since been transformed into the Science Center Oak Savanna. 

Lucile Tepsa’14 Oak Savana“At some point in the historical past it was an oak savanna, but none of the soil structure or underlying pieces of what was an oak savanna is left there anymore because it was a building,” Grossman explains. “We’re creating a landscape that echoes what was here in the past as opposed to recreating what was here in the past.”

The result is more than visually pleasing landscaping. In accordance with the campus master plan, which called for native-species landscaping, 20 such species were planted in September 2009 with the goal of creating a self-organizing and sustainable ecosystem.

Designed to mimic the 1836 Wisconsin Public Land Survey description of the area, bur oak trees were planted in addition to a native-species mixture heavily enriched with showy flowers—plants producing an abundance of bright blooms.

“It’s a much showier mixture than what would have occurred naturally because people like looking at flowers,” she says.

Of the 20 species planted, two are grasses and 18 are flowers. Three years in, Grossman and her students have identified approximately 12 of the 20 species planted, among them black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, and goldenrods.

That rate of return is typical, Grossman explains. “We don’t expect to see them all yet,” she says. “We might see all of them in five years or there’s some we may never see.”

What they have seen, however, is their fair share of invasive species. Sweet clover was the predominate invasive species in 2011, and last summer it was birdfoot trefoil.

Working under Grossman’s supervision, Beloit College Sustainability Fellows Nathan Whitley’11, Lucile Tepsa’14, Safari Fang’14, and Sophie Maloney’14 have removed the intruding plants.

In addition to controlling invasive species, the Sustainability Fellows—a for-credit program that awards students a stipend for completing a campus- or community-based sustainability project over the summer—have also performed many other tasks during the last three years. They’ve identified species, monitored biodiversity and plant growth, planted additional native species, protected baby oaks seeded by students and squirrels, and labeled plants.

“The first key thing that I learned was how the ecology of native species landscaping contributes to the sustainability of an ecosystem,” Tepsa says. “The next thing I realized was that in making decisions about sustainable landscaping, native species are not only important with regards to biological sustainability, but also for preserving the historical integrity of an area.”

Fang adds that working on the savanna was a rewarding experience. “My work on the oak savanna deepened my knowledge of restoration, ecology, and botany, and it developed my field-work skills and expanded my interest in environmental science,” she says.

The oak savanna has also served as an educational resource for students in Grossman’s botany class as well as geology and ecology classes.

“It’s very helpful for teaching because it demonstrates some of the types of plants that occurred naturally in this area that aren’t around anymore because of agriculture and urbanization and suburbanization,” Grossman says.

The oak savanna is also beneficial for the campus because it requires minimal management.

Although oak savannas are ecosystems in which fire is ordinarily an essential element, Grossman says the Science Center Oak Savanna will not be burned because it is too close to the building. Mowing will be used as a substitute for burning.

The oak savanna needs only minimal weeding and pesticide use, limited yearly seeding, and no watering. The savanna is not irrigated (with the exception of the trees earlier this summer due to the drought) because intricate root systems draw water from deep within the ground.

“It’s basically taking care of itself,” Grossman says. “That’s the whole idea. It’s a self-sustaining landscape. It’s very different than something that needs to be weeded or mowed every week. You shape the land, put down top soil, lay down some seeds, and let the plants take over.”

In the future, Grossman expects the oak savanna to increase in diversity and to continue to be used by students performing research.

“I think it’s a good idea to have this kind of a landscape for teaching, and with time students will do other types of studies,” she says.  

More native species on campus
  • The Center for the Sciences Patio and Rain Gardens have native forbs, grasses, and sedges.
  • The Aldrich Parking Lot Bioswale boasts native species such as lupines, gray-headed coneflowers, goldenrods, and sunflowers.
  • The Eloise Marston Schnaitter’32 Wildflower Garden, located on the slopes behind the Wright Museum of Art, was donated by Schnaitter (it was transplanted from the alumna’s own gardens to campus in 1994) and includes species such as bloodroot, Virginia bluebell, Virginia waterleaf, wild columbine, and Jack-in-the-pulpit.


  • April 20 2014 at 6:37 pm
    Judith Schnaitter Peterson

    My mother would be so happy to know how well her garden is doing and to know about the various programs of native plantings happening at Beloit College. It is a joy to see the campus when we are able to visit. Best to all students and faculty who work on this.

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