‘Keeping the City in the Woods’: Burgeson to deliver Heritage Lecture

RUBY WALLAU Staff Photographer
The Carnahan-Jackson Garden on Monday morning.

Chautauquans are famously responsible for absorbing what they experience on the grounds in the summer and translating it to their home communities where they live the rest of the year. They also apply their knowledge right here, even in their leisure.

Betsy Burgeson, supervisor of gardens and landscaping at the Institution, is calling on Chautauquans for just that kind of knowledge and vigilance applied locally, assisting her in “Keeping the City in the Woods.”

As part of the Heritage Lecture Series, Burgeson will talk about the interchange of Chautauqua, people and nature at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ.

“It is basically about preserving Chautauqua Institution through the un-preservation of plants,” Burgeson said.

In part, this vigilance is common sense. In another part, it is in response to New York State Department of Environment and Conservation regulations banning the use of several common shrubs that have been used extensively throughout the Institution (and in all communities) through the years.

Shrubs like privet and bushes like honeysuckle have desirable qualities that have made them frequent selections in home landscaping. But their fast rates of growth and reproduction threaten native species that are not so prolific. Removal of such invaders is often a passive operation, waiting for plants to die out naturally and replanting with something native to the area.

On the other hand, Burgeson has been training her staff to be ace detectors of invasive plants. Burgeson said her crews recently removed 45 dump truck loads of honeysuckle from the grounds. But this isn’t a slash and trash operation. Burgeson and her crew have to inventory all the plants and trees on the grounds, thinning out and replacing species tactically so as to achieve a balanced ecological web.

Insects matter in this balance. Some of them are well known: the emerald ash borer, for example, an insect that has killed vast swaths of ash trees in parts of the United States. The asian longhorned beetle is less well known, but it is distinctive and dangerous. It likes maple trees. And the hemlock woolly adelgid; it likes eastern hemlocks.

The Carnahan-Jackson Garden is at the south edge of the Amphitheater. It is quiet and peaceful — even when the Amp is not. The garden has a red foot bridge and stone embankment encased and bordered by a stand of hemlocks.

The hemlocks in Carnahan-Jackson Garden, the maples throughout the Chautauqua landscape — they are not now in danger. But Burgeson will be vigilant and wants to help Chautauquans be on watch for the bugs and plants that one day could upset the ecological balance.

“Plants like garlic mustard, brought in innocently enough, take over,” Burgeson said. “Honeysuckle leafs out before native plants and keeps them from growing. Native birds, insects, even bats — the whole ecological web can get out of balance. One yard at a time, we can restore the web, and Chautauqua is a great place to start.

“I’m depending on homeowners and visitors to come to me if they see something out of line,” she said. “I can give suggestions to help out. From here, we can show other communities.”