Woodland plants can improve stream quality this spring

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

AMES, Iowa -- With spring just around the corner, newly sprouted plants are adding splashes of color to Iowa’s woodlands. Research from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture reveals that these understory plants have an important role to play in protecting water quality.

Michaeleen Gerken, a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University, has compiled a list of common woodland plants to guide Iowans interested in restoring function and quality to the landscape, available on the Leopold Center website.

Gerken works with Jan Thompson, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management, who leads a competitive grant project in the Leopold Center’s Ecology Initiative. The investigators collected data from nine locations across Iowa to examine how woodland plant communities influence sediment and nutrient runoff.

The researchers found that intact forests had more native species and higher-quality specialist species compared to forests degraded by human use. Degraded forests and woodlands, with less understory cover throughout the year and fewer roots in the ground, tended to deliver more nitrogen to streams.

That means landowners can work to improve water quality by planting or encouraging native woodland plants. Gerken’s list gives information about the characteristics and needs of various species, such as spring beauties, violets, bluebells, goldenrods and sedges.

Certain species perform better than others, according to the research. Gerken found that wild ginger, Virginia waterleaf, hispid buttercup and Virginia bluebells are easy to establish and particularly effective for capturing and storing nutrients. She plans to study mayapple, false rue anemone, and James’ sedge, plants with great potential for woodland restoration.

“All of these plants are up early in the spring and most have pretty spring flowers or attractive foliage,” Gerken said.

You can find the list of woodland plants, as well as a fact sheet about the project, online at www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs.  Look for “Species for Iowa Woodland Planting and Restoration” and “Linking Forest Communities and Water Quality.”

Support for the project comes from the Leopold Center, ISU Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Department of Agriculture McIntire-Stennis Program.


Jan Thompson, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management, 515-294-0024, jrrt@iastate.edu

Michaeleen Gerken, ISU Natural Resource Ecology and Management, 319-530-0953, mgerken@iastate.edu

Jeri Neal, Leopold Center Ecology Initiative, 515-294-5610, wink@iastate.edu

Laura Miller, Leopold Center Communications, 515-294-5272, lwmiller@iastate.edu