A freshly planted garden outside of the Shineman Center aims to pay homage to incredible rare and native ecosystems found in the Finger Lakes region.

Eric Hellquist, associate professor of biology and a plant ecologist, spearheaded the initiative in hopes of raising awareness of the alvar – a rare North American ecosystem characterized by fractured and exposed limestone bedrock caused by the influence of glacial ice and meltwater. The garden contains native nursery stock and will be supplemented with plants grown in the Shineman Center Greenhouse. The rocks in the garden are repurposed surplus or salvage from campus.

Alvar ecosystems are one of the rarest ecosystems in the world, according to Hellquist, who spent much of his career studying plant communities around the Great Lakes region.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in Northern Michigan as well as here in the lower Great Lakes around Lake Ontario,” Hellquist explained. “[Alvar communities] are only found around the Great Lakes, scattered locations around the Baltic Sea, and a few scattered locations in England and Ireland, and that’s it for the world.”

As the campus aims to further celebrate the Great Lakes, as well as shine a light on freshwater issues, Hellquist thought this was a fitting time to introduce the gardens outside the Shineman Center to support their mission. 

“There were two beds outside of Shineman that, for a lack of a better word, had been abandoned… They’re surrounded by sidewalks, there isn’t shade around them. So these sidewalks are literally pavement and artificially mimic the natural geology where these plants would occur,” explained Hellqiust. “So I had often thought that that would be a perfect place for us to put in a garden that honors these truly unique Great Lakes-specific plant communities.” 

With 12 different species planted in the beds, Hellquist hopes these eye-catching species will catch the attention of everyone within Oswego’s diverse campus community. One striking species, which will peak in early summer, has 20 plants in the alvar beds.

“One of the plants I’m very excited about is called Prairie Smoke. It only grows in one New York state county, on alvar limestone beds in Jefferson County,” Hellquist explained. “When those take off it will be quite striking because they have a beautiful reddish pink flower, and the floral structure has these very long styles that come out of the center… from a distance, it looks like a pinkish red mist.”

For his vision to become a reality is something Hellquist is quite proud of.

“For me as a botanist, it's just so exciting to have native plants out in front of our science building. It makes me so happy every time I walk by.” 

Campus collaboration and involvement

The alvar beds are the result of a collaboration that spans several offices and departments. After Hellquist noticed the empty beds outside Shineman, he contacted Kate Spector, director of the Sustainability Office, who agreed to assist with the creation of the alvar gardens. Hellquist emphasized the importance of both the Sustainability Office and Facilities Services’ assistance with this project.

“Their involvement was essential to get this off the ground… If it wasn’t for the students and staff at the Sustainability Office and for Kate’s assistance this project wouldn’t have happened. So I’m so grateful to them and everyone else at facilities,” said Hellquist.

Daniel Griffin, a senior illustration major, was one of those students. Griffin not only had the opportunity to work in the garden itself this summer, but also hopes to eventually create signage for the beds as the Sustainability Office’s graphic designer. 

“The aspect of working on signage was exciting because I’ve been evaluating some ecological signage the office is working on currently, and am moving on to the idea of creating a style guide for all of the ecological signage on campus which would include places like the arboretum, maybe the Permaculture Living Lab (PLL), and the alvar beds,” Griffin explained. “Learning about not only this bed but also diverse local nature is just really cool. I find it fascinating even though it doesn’t fully apply to my degree as an illustration major. As a person and as a student it engaged my curiosity.”

Hellquist hopes these alvar beds will leave plenty more opportunities for student engagement and hands-on learning.

“In my Great Lakes environmental issues class, I’ll now be able to bring students right outside the door and show them plants that are unique to these communities,” Hellquist explained. “We want to bring in more stone to replicate the surface of these habitats more, so that would be an opportunity for student involvement. To add more plantings, to maintain it… Clubs could also get involved with maintaining the gardens.”

Local history of alvar communities

Hellquist emphasized that what makes alvar ecosystems so unique is their ties to the underlying geology of the Great Lakes region.

“About 450 million years ago, this part of the world was positioned near the equator and our region was covered by a warm shallow ocean. Over a millennium, as animals with calcium in their shells died, they built layers of calcium on the seafloor that were eventually compressed into the limestone bedrock,” said Hellquist.

As the continents moved northward, what would become limestone deposits were brought up to their current positions, he added. Then, roughly 10,000 years ago, glaciers made their way through this area, taking with them the ground’s soils and leaving only the limestone bedrock.

“Alvar habitats are often called ‘limestone plains’ or ‘limestone pavement’ communities because there is very little soil on them and the limestone bedrock is right on the surface, so that creates unique ecological conditions,” explained Hellquist. “The result is unique species that adapt to the limestone and thin soil of this ecosystem. [That’s why] they’re found typically along the shores of the Great Lakes, typically Lake Michigan and here on Lake Ontario.”

Hellquist hopes these unique species will spark curiosity and raise awareness of these ecosystems that are closely tied to the land’s rich history.

“The garden itself is small, but it represents something much bigger and something that is ecologically very unusual,” said Hellquist. “There are estimates that we’ve lost over 90 percent of these habitats over the years for various reasons… so it’s really nice to have the campus supporting an initiative that celebrates our regional natural history and identity.”