Cornell Botanic Garden's Natural Areas

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Beebe Lake and Woods
Jason Koski (UPhoto)

Beebe Lake is located north of Forest Home Drive. The site is an active floodplain. Its soils are rich and host a diversity of plant life. The forest has many large old trees, including sugar maple, hemlock, white oak, and basswood. New Jersey tea, a plant used as a substitute for tea in colonial times, grows at the base of the slope at the west end.

Cornell faculty and other New York state researchers have used this site to study a variety of topics. Ian Hewson, Microbiology, completed the first study of the allochthonous virus in aquatic habitats in 2011. In 2013, the Lab of Ornithology partnered with Binghamton University to study the function of nest-associated calls of American crows. Currently, Todd Bittner, director of Natural Areas, oversees pesticide treatment of hemlock trees in the area, which are at risk from hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native, aphid-like insect that feeds on hemlock trees and eventually kills them.

Beebe Lake, a favorite natural area of the Cornell community, hosts a wealth of life and provides many recreational opportunities. Hiking and canoeing are popular activities in the summer months. In all seasons, students walk past the lake daily. 

Dunlop Meadow
F. Robert Wesley

Dunlop Meadow is located just north of Brooktondale in the town of Caroline in Tompkins County. The meadow, a 56-acre grassland, is managed specifically to provide opportunities for field studies. A large block is mowed in a rotating regime to provide appropriate vegetation structure for breeding grassland birds. Many species of grassland birds prefer new growth for nesting while others prefer various degrees of thatch. Researchers come to this area to study the influences of land management practices on vegetation.

Dunlop Meadow also contains 20 plots of cropped farmland. The plots are cropped in four-year rotations and then allowed to go fallow and revert to successional old-field communities. This management system allows researchers to visit the crop squares and view 16 years worth of successional changes all at one time. 

Watch students in Anurag Agrawal's Field Ecology Class use Dunlop Meadow for research.

Edwards Lake Cliffs Preserve
F. Robert Wesley

Edwards Lake Cliffs Preserve hosts one of the rarest plant communities in the local region. It is one of the few places with undeveloped lake frontage on the eastern side of Cayuga Lake. Upland boneset (Eupatorium sessilifolium), a locally rare member of the sunflower family, grows on the cliffs. The forested area is home to hop hornbeam, butternut, and a variety of oaks and hickories. The preserve includes lake cliffs, Shurger Glen, a forested ravine, old fields, shrub thickets, and successional forests with a history of agricultural use. Shurger Glen is a popular destination for geology field trips because of the diverse fossils in the strata above the streambed and below the large falls.

The area is currently under threat by pale swallowwort (Cynanchum rossicum), an invasive plant species in the milkweed family. Antonio DiTommaso, Integrated Plant Sciences, and Cornell Botanic Garden's staff have been conducting studies to assess the efficacy of different pesticide treatments to control the spread of the plant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is also researching a biological control for pale swallowwort in the area. In addition, the hemlock trees are at risk from the insect hemlock woolly adelgid. In 2009, Mark Whitmore, Natural Resources, began research on a biological control for this invasive species. 

DiTommaso, Antonio, Lindsey R. Milbrath, Todd Bittner, and F. Robert Wesley. “Pale Swallowwort (Vincetoxicum rossicum) Response to Cutting and Herbicides.” Weed Science Society of America 6, no. 3 (2013): 381-390.

Mundy Wildflower Garden
F. Robert Wesley

The Mundy Wildflower Garden is one of the most popular natural areas. Over 200 native plant species are found in the preserve. An arrangement of native flowers near the entrance serves as a model for visitors interested in planting native species in their home gardens.

An eight-foot-high fence to keep out an overpopulation of white-tailed deer encloses eight of the 15 acres of the garden. An excessive number of deer browsing on woody and herbaceous plants negatively affects both the local flora and the associated wildlife. The enclosed and unenclosed areas provide an opportunity for visitors to view the impact of herbivore overpopulation on natural areas.

Periodic natural flooding by Fall Creek maintains a small streamside meadow, which keeps the canopy open and the plant community diverse. The forested area hosts many sycamore and cottonwood trees. Vines, shrubs, and a rich assemblage of wildflowers are all labeled to aid visitors in identification.

Research is ongoing in the garden. Ellen Crocker, a PhD student in Integrated Plant Sciences, studies the microbial communities of native and invasive wetland species, while the Natural Areas staff study the effect of herbivores on the plant communities.

Cascadilla Gorge
Todd Bittner

Cascadilla Gorge is a massive display of rock, water, and trees. The warm, south-facing slopes are home to chestnut oak, scarlet oak, hickories, shadbush, and other plants adapted to drier conditions. The cooler north-facing slopes and the gorge bottom host hemlock, beech, sugar maple, and mountain maple, as well as ferns, mosses, and lichens.  Where the creek bed is stable, some sycamore, cottonwood, and box elder trees have taken root.

The iconic Cascadilla Gorge Trail offers hikers easy access to the scenic views, as well as the diverse plant and animal life that inhabits the area. The gorge and trail were restored between 2009 and 2014. This restoration included realigning and elevating sections of trail, removing invasive plants, repairing the retaining walls and staircases, and adding new drainage systems to divert stormwater under the trail.

The trail restorations have made it easier for researchers to access areas of the gorge that are most interesting. Rafael O. Tinoco Lopez, a former Cornell graduate student, would bring his class to the gorge to study transport, mixing, and transformation in the environment.

Ringwood Ponds Natural Area
Todd Bittner

Ringwood Ponds Natural Area is full of vernal ponds and wetlands, with running streams and wooded swamps juxtaposed throughout a complex, glacially sculpted landscape. Herbs like marsh marigold and cinnamon ferns grow in wetlands with red maple, hemlock, and yellow birch.  The area hosts an array of amphibians, uncommon nesting birds, and unusual aquatic organisms like fairy shrimp.

Drier areas of the preserve consist of maple-beech forest and many of the trees are over 150 years old. The understory includes hobblebush, maple-leaved viburnum, and witch hazel. Many herbaceous plants are in the area, including wintergreen, starflower, and goldthread.

The unusual plants and animals in the preserve make it an interesting place to conduct research. Kelly R. Zamudio, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, surveyed the amphibians in the area for Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a fungus that causes chytridiomycosis. Nelson G. Hairston, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, studied the ecological communities found in temporary forested pools. Joseph Yavitt, Natural Resources, observed the impact of earthworm invasion on small mammal communities.

Fall Creek Gorge
Cornell Botanic Gardens

Fall Creek Gorge runs from Triphammer Falls at Beebe Lake dam to Lake Street below Ithaca Falls. It is an integral part of Cornell’s campus and offers scenic views, recreation, trails, plant and wildlife habitats, drinking water, and hydroelectric power to the community. The rocky slopes and steep cliffs have forests of Appalachian oak-hickory and Chestnut oak types. Many of the trees are over 200 years old. The north-facing slopes are cooler and have many eastern hemlock trees. 

In 1990, New York State declared this 1.8-mile stretch of Fall Creek a recreational river, which means the gorge is protected and preserved to the highest degree. Besides plant life, the land supports diverse aquatic and benthic macro-invertebrate communities.

The immense biodiversity of life at Fall Creek makes it popular for an array of research projects. Mark C. Whitmore, Natural Resources, currently studies areas of Fall Creek Gorge for canopy defoliation. Nicholas Sly, a previous student of David W. Winkler, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, studied the breeding behavior of northern rough-winged sparrows.

Fall Creek Gorge is 25.6 acres total, with waterfalls that flow over a series of sharp cliffs. The water drops 431 feet from Beebe Lake to Ithaca Falls.

Slaterville 600
Cornell Botanic Gardens

Slaterville 600 is a large forested area. It was once an old-growth forest and a favorite nesting spot of passenger pigeons. Along the western boundary is Six Mile Creek, an important site for the study of aquatic insects. Ferns, lichens, and liverworts cover the steep gorge around the creek. Many of the trees living in the preserve are over 150 years old. Maple and beech trees dominate the west-facing hillsides and high hilltops while hemlock and yellow birch thrive on steep slopes. Hikers can also wade cautiously across Six Mile Creek. Some sections are rated as A+ trout streams due to the cold, clear waters.

Nicholas D. Youngblut, a postdoc in the lab of Daniel H. Buckley, Integrated Plants Sciences, conducted research at the preserve in October 2015, using high-resolution stable isotope probing to link carbon cycling and microbial community structure in soils from various habitat types. David A. Weinstein, Natural Resources, monitors the biology and chemistry of Six Mile Creek annually.

The preserve is a 600-acre lot, just less than one square mile, located 11 miles southeast of Cornell. 

A Living Laboratory

The Cornell Botanic Garden's Natural Areas steward 3,400 acres of land, including 20 on-campus and 24 off-campus locations. Each area is maintained and protected to support academic research and conservation goals of the Natural Areas staff. The 44 preserves comprise most of the ecological communities found in the central Finger Lakes Region, including Appalachian oak-hickory forests, hemlock swamp forests, bogs, marshes, vernal ponds, and beech-maple forests. “Cornell University is a world-class institution, and we strive to provide world-class outdoor classrooms and research facilities,” says Todd Bittner, director of Natural Areas. “Any student, faculty member, or visitor who has hiked around Beebe Lake or walked past the gorges has experienced a part of the Cornell Botanic Garden's Natural Areas.”

Cornell faculty and students, and other groups use the preserves for research, outdoor classrooms, and recreation. Natural Areas staff help investigators achieve their goals by understanding their needs and guiding them to the preserves that most suit their interests. Anurag Agrawal, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, studies plant-insect interactions at several of the Natural Areas. His students attend class in Dunlop Meadow, where they observe these interactions first-hand. Visitors are welcome to explore the many habitats and discover all they have to offer.