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Syracuse University students study Central New York's pesky plants

May 12, 2008

Judy Holmes
(315) 443-2201

Judy Holmes

Along with ushering in an array of tulips, daffodils, lilacs and other colorful blossoms, spring is also the beginning of the perennial battle between home gardeners and weeds. While the battle rages on through the summer, Syracuse University senior Rachael Suhl will be carefully nurturing a small group of pesky plants and shrubs as part of a broader research project to determine why non-native, invasive plants flourish in Central New York, often at the expense of their native cousins.

"Most invasive shrubs in the United States were intentionally introduced in the horticulture trade," says Jason Fridley, assistant professor of biology in SU's College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). Fridley studies the ecology of plant communities -- their organization, distribution and function within an ecosystem, as well as the genetic diversity of individual plant species. "We need to better understand the mechanisms plants use to become dominant in a system. What makes some invasive species grow better than the native species?" he asks.

To help answer that question, Suhl is planting four pairs of native CNY species and their non-native cousins in an experimental garden on SU's South Campus. She will manipulate the soil conditions and amount of light and water for the control and experimental groups, and carefully monitor and document the results. The species she is studying are sugar maple (native) and Norway maple (non-native); American bittersweet (native) and oriental bittersweet (non-native); American silverberry (native) and autumn olive (non-native); and burning bush (native) and a non-native burning bush cousin.

While Suhl is tending her gardens, Stephen Maheux, a senior biology major, will search for some of these same plants in Green Lakes and Clark Reservation state parks. When he finds the plants, Maheux will document their exact location using GPS coordinates, their abundance, and the surrounding conditions -- soil type and amount of sun, among other things. He will then compile the information in a database that will be used to map the distribution and abundance of the species in the studied areas, along with topographical information. "The maps can then be used to build a model to predict where these species can be found and the conditions needed for them to spread," Fridley says.

Maheux will hike the forests of Green Lakes and Clark Reservation shadowed by Danielle Houghton, a senior dual biology major in A&S and television, radio and film major in the S.I Newhouse School of Public Communications. Houghton plans to create a "NOVA"-style documentary on invasive species for her Capstone Project in the Renée Crown University Honors Program. Houghton's project is supported by the Wise-Marcus 50-Year Friendship Fund, which provides funding for honors students' Capstone Projects.

Both Suhl and Maheux are receiving support for their summer research from the Ruth Meyer Scholarship Fund. The fund is administered by the college's Innovative Learning Program (iLearn), which supports a variety of educational programs and serves as a clearinghouse for information about undergraduate research and other unique learning opportunities. Both students plan to write theses based on the work they do this summer. Maheux, who plans to apply for medical school in the fall, says the summer project will provide him with a learning experience not available in the classroom. "I really wanted to do something that was hands on," he says. "And, I enjoy the outdoors."

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