Archive for March, 2016

Planting Trees in Ecuador

~By Talia Schmitt, Class of 2018 

Over spring break, I joined a group of seven William & Mary students on the college’s Branch Out service trip, TREE. We loaded on to an airplane and headed off to the dry forest in Ecuador to plant some trees. Clarification #1: The dry forest is different than the rainforest. The dry forest is located on the western coast of Ecuador whereas the rainforest circles around to include the eastern region of the country. Unlike the rainforest, known for its constant wet conditions, the dry forest, on the pacific coast, has both a rainy and dry season. When we went, it was the rainy season– green, lush, rainy and roughly 80°F. In the dry season from June to December, the land appears dead with no rain.  This dry season tricks many people who see the forest as “dead” anyway and therefore cut down many of the trees. Now, less than 25% of the dry forest is left, resulting in erosion and mudslides as well as the destruction of one of the most bio-diverse habitats on the planet.

Dedicated to preserving the dry forest, California residents Lucas and Jasper Oshun founded Global Student Embassy (GSE) in 2008. We know the story all too well where a white man comes into another community, finds a problem and tries to fix it, but as I learned more about GSE, I began to see why this organization is different.


Lucas partnered up with Ecuadorian science teacher, Mancho, and the two of them work on a program where students are the core labor and funding that supports this reforestation project. Lucas has set up GSE programs and eco-clubs throughout the U.S. especially in high schools and colleges in California. Mancho started high school eco-clubs in which Ecuadorian students prepare for reforestation throughout the year and then plant trees with American students in our springtime. Some of these Ecuadorian “eco-club” teens are even given the opportunity to visit the United States.

When we arrived in the beaches of San Clemente on the Ecuadorian coast, some of the first faces to greet us were those of Luis, Alvaro, Fiorella, Rolando, Evelyn and Christian—all Ecuadorian students and interns. Country boundaries rapidly faded as we traded a Salsa class for the “Cotton-Eye Joe” dance, exchanged language lessons and compared environmental actions.

Together, we planted over 500 trees in just three days in Bahia, Ecuador. For the first time, I felt the lumpy green skin of the Ceibo tree and ate a bright pink dragon fruit straight off the branch. The mosquitos swarmed and our arms carrying the fifty-pound seedling-boxes ached. There were some near-fainting experiences and the harsh sunlight reminded us that Ecuador is on the equator. Yet the feeling of rich soil in-between my fingers, the Spanish jokes and the look of the farmers after they saw our hard work were all I needed to keep planting.

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On the last days of the trip we left the bioluminescent-watered, pink-sea-shelled Bahia coast, and stayed in the old Andes town of Cuenca. There, I learned about the various groups of indigenous people in Ecuador like the Quechuas who wear two braids, a velvet skirt and dominant the traditional medicine corner of the market.  We explored the enchanted Cajas National Park with “Quinoa” trees the color of a red crepe myrtles and with waters so clean we drank out of them.

On the last days we reflected on the trip: the culture, the nature, the friends. All of the immense beauty humbled me and reminded me of my small size in the immense, dynamic and essential forests of Ecuador.


Check out Talia’s blog here and a video she made below!


March 23rd, 2016

Native Plant Nursery Saves Biodiversity on Campus

~ By Erin Chapman, Class of 2017

The fall weather felt pleasant as I hiked the trails in Matoaka woods, scrutinizing the leaves at the tops of oak trees through my binoculars and using a field guide to identify tree species. My mission was to find a scarlet oak, Quercus coccinea, and then collect as many of its acorns as I could fit into my bag. I wasn’t hoarding for my winter food supply – I was saving the tree biodiversity on campus.


I work on the Native Plant Nursery project (NPN) through the EcoAmbassador internship. The EcoAmbassador internship is a program operated by the Committee on Sustainability where students can apply to multiple on-campus sustainability internships and receive class credits for their work. I compare this experience to Captain Planet and the Planeteers. EcoAmbassadors are Planeteers and Calandra Lake, the EcoAmbassador coordinator, is Captain Planet.

My project is an initiative to restore declining native plant populations on the William & Mary campus. This is both for educational and conservation purposes. The educational reason is to replace species important to biology and environmental science courses that were lost due to ongoing campus construction and development. The conservation purpose is to support landscape efforts by providing native plants which require less maintenance to thrive compared to non-native plants, and that support native animal populations.  

The targeted species are:

  • Decumaria barbara (climbing hydrangea)
  • Ulmus alata (winged elm)
  • Quercus prinus (chestnut oak)
  • Quercus coccinea (scarlet oak)
  • Quercus stellata (post oak)
  • Quercus marilandica (blackjack oak)
  • Quercus michauxii (swamp chestnut oak)
  • Viburnum nudum (possumhaw)
  • Oxydendrum arboretum (sourwood)

 Field work is essential for this project – especially during the fall season when I was out competing with squirrels for acorns. The seeds and acorns collected are used to grow seedlings during late autumn. It’s the EcoAmbassador’s responsibility to find mature individuals of the targeted species and collect the seeds from campus property. By selecting seeds from trees nearby, rather than from trees of the same species in a different part of their natural range, our seedlings should be adapted to the local climate.

When I finally found a scarlet oak deep in the College Woods, I collected 97 of its acorns, using an acorn identification guide just to be certain. Acorns with holes weren’t selected, because holes indicate invasion by parasitic insect larvae, such as weevils.

I brought my sizable collection to the potting room in the green house where I performed a float test. This test separates the germinated acorns from the insect damaged and non-germinated acorns. All acorns are placed in a container of water for 24 hours. The ones that sink are viable and kept; the ones that float are discarded. All but four acorns passed the float test.

Scarlet oak is in the red oak family, a family comprised of dormant oak species, and therefore needs a cooling period in order to grow. This cooling period would be winter naturally, but in the NPN it is a refrigerator. Acorns from the red oak family are placed in the fridge in a plastic container filled with soaked peat moss for at least three months. It is vitally important to keep acorns (from all oak families) moist as it is imperative to their timely germination.


When I took the acorns out of the fridge a month ago, I was ecstatic to see the cracked acorn shells with green seed coat peeking through. My advisors (Patty Jackson/Greenhouse Manager and Beth Chambers/Herbarium Curator) and I set up two seed flats for our acorns and put them under grow lights. Most of them now have shoots – a few even have leaves! Soon, they will be transferred to their own individual tree pots.

Currently, the NPN has almost 100 tree seedlings growing at the nursery behind the law school. Once these seedlings reach a self-sustaining size where they no longer require protection against predation, they will eventually be landscaped onto campus property and carry the genetics of their ancestors into the future- hopefully, without any need for helping hands. Looking at the sprouts extending from my scarlet oak acorns, I remember Captain Planet’s words, “The power is yours.”

March 9th, 2016

Restoring the Crim Dell

~By Alexander Gerard, Class of 2019

The Crim Dell is one of the most prominent landmarks on William & Mary’s campus, and even in Colonial Williamsburg.  Often the backdrop for family photos, its natural beauty in unmatched by anything on campus. Unfortunately, the Crim Dell is not as beautiful up close as it is from afar, and many people are not aware of this due to its charm.

Unfortunately, in reality the Crim Dell is in poor ecological health, and the structural elements such as trails and stairs are becoming unsafe. Many plant species found in the area around the lake are not native, the biggest offender being the bamboo that was actually planted near the Crim Dell decades ago. Bamboo can even be seen obscuring the bridge. Other invasive plants include wisteria and Japanese honeysuckle which have smothered native species on the trails.

In addition to the lack of attention to the invasive plants, much of the infrastructure in the area has been left to decay over the years. Plants have grown into the trails, blocking people from exploring the trails. Benches are nowhere to be seen, restricting the practicality of student use. In some places the stairs and bridges are falling apart, causing safety hazards.

Our group, SEAC Restoration, has been working on improving the Crim Dell for over a year. We have cleared large areas of invasive species and will continue to do so. We have also improved trails by clearing them of overgrown plants as well as working to make the trails more flat and accessible.

Restoration is continuing to work to fix these issues with the Crim Dell, and to make it a more central part of campus; we hope to make it a destination for students looking for something to do. We are currently working on a green fee proposal, or a request for money, to improve the Crim Dell.  We will continue clearing invasive species and replacing them with native plants. We are also planning to improve structures around the area such as the broken stairs, and to possibly build new infrastructure, such as educational signs.







March 2nd, 2016


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