Indiana State’s nickname has taken on a life of its own, with an award-winning, lush campus landscape that provides inspiration for researchers.
When the student body of Indiana State Normal School voted in 1922 for the Sycamores nickname, some say it was a joke. Even if it wasn’t, surely no one could have imagined nearly a century later how truly spot-on the selection was.
In Stephanie Krull’s office, houseplants vine along the ceiling, and a straw hat hanging by the door suggests this landscape and grounds manager is ready for anything under the Terre Haute sun.
With more than 3,000 trees and a plethora of plantings on Indiana State property, that hat surely has come in handy, as Krull and her staff have led the university to receive the Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Campus USA designation for seven consecutive years and to become just this year certified for sustainable landscaping practices by the Indiana Wildlife Federation.
Many alumni who visit campus don’t recognize the university’s lush landscape, and newcomers are lured in by its park-like charm. But Indiana State’s dedication to flora and fauna doesn’t stop at curb appeal — university researchers work diligently to study trees, their history and their ecology.
Maintaining and improving the grounds is a challenge, considering it requires the merging of Mother Nature’s calendar with the academic calendar.
“It’s pretty crazy all the time,” Krull said, noting that November is her only planning month. After the leaves are raked for homecoming is when most of the staff take a breather.
Tree research, too, is year-round. Jim Speer, professor of geography and geology, developed his interest in dendrochronology as a graduate student at the University of Arizona, which has one of the first and largest tree-ring labs in the world.
Today, when Speer talks of his research findings, it oftentimes involves a reference to “A.D.,” as his data regularly dates back a millennium or two.
“Anything that has tree rings, we can date and can do climate reconstruction, fire history, insect outbreak and date archeological processes — look at chemicals in the wood. We can do most of those in our lab,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, Speer helped land managers in Oregon understand the cyclical pandora moth outbreaks by mapping their effect on tree rings for 622 years. This topic has since been revisited through a National Science Foundation grant by Speer’s graduate student Kristen de Graauw, who used digital mapping to examine the insect’s entire range and develop an outbreak history back to 1400.
In Terre Haute, Speer’s research into cicadas — previously thought to be a parasite — yielded surprising results in the early 2000s.
“Most insects we reconstruct are ones that eat the needles off the trees and affect the photosynthesis, which affects ring growth,” he said. “Periodical cicadas are a root parasite, so they spend that entire time under ground feeding off the roots of the trees.”
After examining the host trees’ rings, Speer and his research team didn’t find the usual markings of parasitic damage. Instead, they discovered a nutritional boost five years after the cicadas’ emergence — perhaps from cicada larva that didn’t mature or the dead adults.
“It’s quite a long lag, so we’re not exactly sure what that is, but it was one of the strongest and most consistent signals we saw,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been arguing periodical cicadas aren’t really a parasite, where they’re just damaging the trees, but it’s more of a symbiotic response that actually helps the trees at some point and doesn’t do as much damage.”
Unfortunately, an experiment with the emerald ash borer did not have such a positive outcome. In collaboration with Purdue University Extension, some of the ash trees on campus were inoculated with pesticides in 2013.
“The idea with treating 40 percent of the trees is there’s enough pesticide in the leaves, so
when the adult emerald ash borer feeds on the leaves, they would either die or aren’t healthy enough to reproduce and (the treatment) protects all the trees on campus.”
The theory didn’t work as hoped, and two years later, most of the untreated trees are dying. Still, Speer says their plan was worth a try.
“In ecology, it’s never 100 percent mortality. There’s usually enough genetic diversity that something survives and continues on. I’d like to study that in the forest to see what percentage of trees would survive this wave coming through,” he said. “Urban trees are much more difficult, because there are fewer of them, so they get a greater concentration of insects. They’re also more stressed, because of the environment they’re in. It could be 100 percent of urban trees.”
Cases such as the emerald ash borer underscore the difficulty with maintaining a landscape in the city. Urban forestry is a new field, curriculum for which Krull would like to see offered at more universities in Indiana. Krull said she feels fortunate that Terre Haute is one of the few cities in the state that employs an urban forester.
As Speer mentioned, a tree’s rings can tell you a lot about the environment. He and his students performed a dendrochemistry project looking at contamination at the Sugar Creek scrap site and found elevated zinc levels in nearby trees.
An archaeological tree-ring project at the Wabash and Erie Canal gave students a peek into life in the 1800s. When logs for the lock were uncovered during an excavation project, preservationists wanted to use them to create a historical display. Speer and his student research team tested samples from the logs and learned they wouldn’t disintegrate in the open air, as was feared, and that they were from a variety of trees. It’s as though they were cut indiscriminately from a nearby plot.
“It was very surprising because elm, black walnut and beech are not usually used for construction. If you build a home, you tend to cut oak or tulip poplar,” he said. “You can see a little about human behavior and how they’re selecting lumber for construction.”
Research by Joey Pettit of Denver, Colo., who graduated in August with a doctorate in spatial and earth sciences, combined tree rings and bats. He ventured to the south and east to determine what age of trees the endangered Indiana bat prefers for summer roosts.
Conventional wisdom rooted in research out West had bats only using old-growth trees. Pettit is able to refute that theory in the much younger eastern forests.
“The message I’m sending out is it’s not necessary bats have old-growth forests. We like for them to be in old-growth forests — there’s biodiversity — but it’s not necessary,” Pettit said.
It’s a welcome message for land managers, as they can focus on growing early-successional trees such as cottonwoods and black locusts — species that mature in 30 to 80 years — instead of exclusively late-successional such as oaks and yellow pines, which can take as long as 300 years to mature.
Pettit, who hopes to continue researching and teaching at a university, is grateful for research opportunities at Indiana State.
“We have great ecology programs. There’s lots of renowned ecologists here, and it’s great to work with people who lead the field,” Pettit said. “I came in with very little experience, and I’m going out with tons of experience.”
Ed White, owner of White’s Creative Landscaping, has witnessed Indiana State’s landscape transformation as a contractor the past 25 years. Today, he helps manage the university’s tree farms and with plantings, pruning and irrigation work.
“Today, with the roads on campus closed in a lot of areas, it’s more student-friendly and makes it more like a campus than what it used to be,” White said.
A tree spade purchased this year will allow the university to make better use of its tree farms, as transplanted trees are more healthy and successful than balled and wrapped trees, especially when grown only a few blocks from their ultimate life-long location, Krull said.
“This is going to greatly improve the number of trees available to them and the different species,” White said.
In honor of Indiana State’s sesquicentennial, the university will be planting 150 sycamores throughout Terre Haute over the next five years.
With the landscaping strategy shifting toward more sustainable efforts — more native plantings, water conservation, limited pesticide use and inviting wildlife with edible bushes and trees — the future is quite green.
“It’s great to have Steph and the Tree Campus (designation) because of the interest in the trees, and it gives us something to study in our own backyard — not to mention the aesthetic aspect of it,” Speer said.