LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) —
Like the deep roots of the native plants studied there, much of the value of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Ecology Center lies hidden deep below the surface.
Switchgrass roots, native to the Cajun prairie, have been known to grow as deep as 7 feet into the south Louisiana soil, making it a great candidate to battle coastal erosion.
The center provides resources for research, education and community activities in ecology and environmental biology, but you might never know it unless you make the drive to the 50-acre plot of grassland in Carencro.
That site features a large greenhouse, just rebuilt after Hurricane Delta, and a building for classrooms, offices and a refrigerated seed storage area. The fields are home to 70 species of rare native plants like switchgrass, little bluestem and a type of ashy sunflower called Cajun Sunrise.
Visitors, be they college researchers or elementary students, can pluck a leaf from a white mountain mint plant to smell and taste for themselves. There are flowers covered with tiny bags to prevent cross-pollination, so graduate students can observe what happens when only one insect pollinates one flower.
Rows of blue water tanks hold tiny mosquitofish for a professor to study and compare their evolution. And a block of wetland plants serves as seed production and harvest for future restoration projects.
The place is ripe for research on super pollinators, rain exclusion, ecosystem change and coastal erosion, Operations Manager Andre’ Daugereaux said.
Daugereaux, who has been leading the center since 2009, said right now there are probably 12 to 18 graduate students and five or six professors conducting research on site. The center also usually hosts private groups with similar missions, like the Cajun Prairie Habitat Society or Acadiana Native Plant Project.
Blaine Novak Pilch is a doctoral student researching how bees respond to the presence of the green lynx spider and how their response influences the plant community of the Cajun prairie.
To investigate this, he has 40 plots at the Ecology Center, each with 10 different native species to which he applies treatments, collects seeds and observes how pollinators behave. He said the center is critically important to his work and field of study.
“In ecology, having experiments that mimic nature in a way that cannot be conducted in a lab but are able to be replicated in a way that would be difficult to do in a natural ecosystem is extremely useful for understanding ecosystems,” Pilch said. “This applies even more to rarer ecosystems, such as the Cajun prairie of which only around 250 acres remains, and experimentation is limited.”
Another important topic of research at the Ecology Center is erosion, and it’s at the core of a new project from the Ecology Center — an outdoor classroom for learning and research about storm water runoff erosion management, native grasses and plants, bees and other pollinators and soil quality.
The work, which begins this semester, is an interdisciplinary effort led by UL Lafayette’s Ecology Center and its Office of Sustainability to plant more native flowers and grasses on 4 acres on each side of Coulee Mine, one of the most prominent drainage canals in Lafayette.
Student volunteers also will help plant along a section of the waterway that bisects University Common behind Blackham Coliseum.
A PLACE TO COME TO LEARN ABOUT NATIVE PLANTS
This will lead to a planned Cajun Prairie Habitat and Outdoor Classroom, a place where researchers, students and community officials can learn about the ecological value of native flowers and grasses, the university recently announced.
”(With this classroom) anybody can see and hopefully understand what’s going on out there,” Daugereaux said. “You have to see it to understand it.”
One thing visitors will see is native plants’ extensive root systems, which provide channels through the soil for water to infiltrate back in and replenish what is being used by cities, residents and farmers.
This might be done through a plexiglass wall that goes down deep into the soil and exposes roots, which is just one idea to discuss with students from the School of Architecture and Design who will help design and build the outdoor classroom.
“The idea is to have a plaza-like outdoor seating area with no walls or roofing — a true outdoor classroom where students, faculty members and the public can meet while they are working on projects,” Vanicor said.
They’ll also learn how these plants improve soil health over time, store carbon, attract pollinators and provide food for migratory birds, not to mention the impact the plants have on erosion, Daugereaux said.
“That’s one of the most important components of the project, because native plants’ expansive, fibrous root systems hold soil, reducing erosion caused by storm water runoff,” said Gretchen LaCombe Vanicor, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability. “They slow water drainage, which reduces flooding, and also filter contaminants.”
Daugereaux recommended planting switchgrass, which grows from the Gulf Coast across Louisiana and beyond.
“It does extraordinarily well at sending deep roots and holding soil in place,” he said.
They’ll also plant little blue stem, a dominant prairie grass that once covered 2.5 million acres of Louisiana, along the coulee and in the outdoor classroom. Native plants like these and others are able to adapt to changes in the ecosystem, because they have been adapting for years, Daugereaux explained.
“They’ve been here 10,000 to 50,000 years,” he said. “Prairie plants, they have adapted to everything this state can throw at them — hurricanes, winter storms. And they’re perennial, so they last.”
A PROJECT THAT CONNECTS COLLEGES
The initiative along the coulee recently received a boost from the CenterPoint Energy Foundation, which provided $7,500 to enable the Ecology Center to hire an undergraduate student researcher to cultivate native plant seeds and increase production.
The support will also provide supplies and labor for planting, cultivation and cover the cost of trucking in compost for fertilizer from UL Lafayette’s Experimental Farm near Cade, which is produced as part of the university’s zero waste initiative.
Creating urban prairies on campus is an initiative of the university’s Sustainability Strategic Plan and one that aligns with the Office of Sustainability’s storm water management master plan. Such areas reduce the need for mowing, provide habitat for bees, bird, butterflies and other pollinators, and help reduce storm water runoff, according to a release.
Other plans for the outdoor classroom project include installation of hydrological sensors at the site, which will enable researchers to analyze soil over long periods for water quality, filtration capacity and carbon levels, according to the university.
Students from the College of Engineering and the Louisiana Watershed Flood Center will be able to study flood control, while students from the Ray P. Authement College of Sciences will be able to examine soil quality, botany and insect and bird populations.
In addition to teaching, faculty research and student academic projects, research gathered at the site will be shared with public officials and water management professionals “to inform community dialogue and decisions, including about implementing flood mitigation methods,” Vanicor explained.