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UD's other outdoor classroom

Dec 23, 2014 09:37PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

Jeff Downing, left, executive directorof the Mt. Cuba Center; and Mark Rieger, right, dean of the College of Agricultural and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware, stand beside graduate students Owen Cass and Christina Mitchell.

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

It is an absolutely stunning August afternoon on the outskirts of Hockessin, and honey bees, bumble bees, carpenter bees, metallic sweat bees and hairy-belly bees are among the ten different categories of insects that are pollinating the plants at the Mt. Cuba Center's Trial Garden.

Owen Cass, a graduate student in the entomology and wildlife ecology program at the University of Delaware's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources [CANR], maneuvers a long, tubular leaf blower that has been converted into a vacuum, through tall plants, sucking up insects that will soon be sorted out and counted.

Graduate student Owen Cass uses an inverted vaccum cleaner to count insects.

 It's a process vital to a collaborative study currently being done by the CANR and Mt. Cuba, in order to assess the ecological value of native plants and determine if pollinating insects are more attracted to "store bought" native plants, or to plants that grow in the wild. 

The partnership between CANR and Mt. Cuba on this research -- which is being led by UD professors Doug Tallamy and Deborah Delaney -- was formally kicked off in July and is expected to yield results in about two years. The answers may have a tremendous impact on our future ecosystem. 

"There's a question that keeps being raised in the gardener community, and that is, 'Are native cultivars as good as their native counterparts?'" Cass said. "I'd like to try to answer that question, because there are a lot of people waiting for that answer.

"Specifically, this is going to impact gardeners, landscapers and land managers -- people who are installing a 100-acre meadow or a 100-square-foot meadow," Cass added. "The choice of planting one type of plant over another is very important at these large scales. We may find out how this affects the ecological value, so that we can improve the ecological value of plants." 

I want this to be a place where people will learn to appreciate our native plants and to see how these plants can enrich their lives so that they, in turn, will become conservators of our natural habitats."

Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, founder of the Mt. Cuba Center

"The students who enroll in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources want more than just jobs; they want careers that matter and provide opportunities to make a difference in the world. I can't think of nobler professions than those dedicated to preserving our earth for future generations."

Graduate student Christina Mitchell conducts research.

Mark Rieger, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Delaware

CANR and the Mt. Cuba Center may be separated by 13 miles, but as the above statements will attest, they are closely connected in a mission to understand the complexity of our ecosystem and its impact on human life.

Although CANR professors had used Mt. Cuba as a research site in past years, the relationship officially began last summer, when a roundtable gathering of professors, administrators, deans and directors from both institutions met to discuss potential collaborations. The studies being led by Tallamy and Delaney were considered the most shovel-ready of the ideas shared at the meeting, and ones that seemed to be perfect kick-starters to the partnership.

"The collaboration with Mt. Cuba was a great strategic alignment for the college," said Mark Rieger, CANR dean. "After I arrived at the University in late 2012, we spent 2013 looking at all the research we planned to do, and need to do, for the next 25 years, and the key components of study had to do with sustainable food systems, landscapes and ecosystems. We were going to hire people, buy equipment and resources, but realized that right up the road is Mt. Cuba, which is studying sustainable food systems, landscapes and ecosystems."

Tallamy, along with graduate student Emily Baisden, are involved in research to determine if cultivars of native plants -- plants bred to have certain traits such as color, shape or size -- support food webs as well as their parents species.

Delaney and Cass are researching how plants attract insects in order to determine which plants provide the most nutritional pollen and nectar for pollinators. Both projects dovetail perfectly with Mt. Cuba, because the study explores a nebulous area where horticulture and ecology intersect.

Courtesy photo UD professors Doug Tallamy and Deborah Delaney.

"We're really just starting," Jeff Downing, executive director of the Mt. Cuba Center, said of the research. "Right now, I would say that we don't know anything, and that's part of what makes this partnership and these projects so valuable. It's because people don't know anything about this subject. Native plants are marketed and appreciated in large part because they're a part of the local ecosystems, but no is quite sure that the things that make it attractive for sale are also attractive to insects, for the purpose of pollenization? 

"You can go to the store for produce and look for the prettiest. You can go to the store and look for the produce that's the heartiest. Through the results of this study, we're hoping to enable people to someday go to the store and look for the produce that's the most environmentally beneficial."

Downing said that a lot of academic research tends to be wrapped in exploration for exploration’s sake, with little regard for the potential impact the findings will have on answering the big-picture questions.

"Conversely, these projects with UD seem so relevant," he said. "This ecological research is in the spirit of trying to have a greater understanding, academically, of how these plants can impact our lives, so that we have a better understanding of how to use them, in ways that further the bigger project, which is having a healthy environment for us and our children."

Rieger sees CANR's relationship with Mt. Cuba -- and the findings that will eventually come from it -- as part of the college's expanding role and ever-changing definition.

"Eighty years ago, the first green revolution happened, which was about improved varieties, crop inputs, and mechanization," he said. "They literally changed the world. Now we're into the second green revolution, where we still are dealing with genetics, but we're dealing with it through molecular biology. The fundamental of genetics taking us forward is trying to figure out how we're going to have enough food to feed 10 billion people 35 years from now.”

Courtesy photos Mt. Cuba Center is a botanical garden with a focus on native plants and ecosystems, with over 50 acres of display gardens and over 500 acres of natural lands.

One of the largest roadblocks in steering an academic college is navigating around the stubbornness of public perception. Despite the expansion of its vision and the inclusion of many new departments within the college, Rieger is aware that the common perception still exists that "UD's Ag School is a place where future farmers go." 

Courtesy photos Mt. Cuba Center is a botanical garden with a focus on native plants and ecosystems, with over 50 acres of display gardens and over 500 acres of natural lands.

In truth, "Ninety percent of our students come from the suburbs, and go on to become biotech scientists, or veterinarians, or go into pharmaceutics, or go into sales and marketing of agricultural products," he said. "They go on to write for agricultural communications. They create websites.  We're not your grandad's ag school, but fundamentally we haven't changed. It's still research, teaching and service in the public interest.

"The college's methods are changing immensely, but our fundamental mission is to be relevant," he added. "The research and innovation engine is there, but if we're not doing something that's going to be useful to someone someday, we're not relevant anymore. We have an endgame, a goal in mind. It may take an entire career to see it, but we're sensitive to being relevant."

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com .

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