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SPACES: the Science Center’s oak savanna

September 15, 2011

Just south of the Center for the Sciences, on the hillside beneath the land-bridge so many of us traverse each day, there blooms an ecological experiment: an oak savanna with indigenous plantings.

Something between a prairie and a forest, a savanna is an ecosystem with trees, but plenty of space between canopies. The ground covering is mostly composed of grasses and forbs (plants with showy flowers). 

The campus oak savanna was part of the architectural blueprints for the Center for the Sciences. With the goal of establishing a sustainable ecosystem and recreating the lay of land as described in the 1836 Public Land Survey, the area was seeded with 20 native prairie plantings in 2009. Since then, the oak savanna has been used as an outdoor lab for botany classes, a site for Sustainability Fellows, and a sledding hill in the winter months.

It will take up to 10 years for all of the native plants to flourish. At this point weeds and grasses are still dominating the area, but flowers like Black-eyed Susan and Purple Coneflower are beginning to take hold.

“So far we’ve seen six or seven [native species],” says Yaffa Grossman, professor of biology. “It’s coming along as we would expect.”

Next time you’re admiring the foliage on your way to afternoon lab, try to imagine the rest of campus—and the rest of the city—burgeoning with plants just like these, and let it take you back to a Wisconsin long before our time.

savanna plant