Arboretum Research Highlighted in Scientific American, December 2013


Wetlands serve important roles as nature’s filters and protective buffers. Loss and degradation of wetlands continue to be of major global concern, and wetland restoration projects often fall short of full recovery to historical conditions. In “Architects of the Swamp,” published in the December 2013 issue of Scientific American, author John Carey writes that research at the UW–Madison Arboretum is “pointing the way to improving the success rate” of wetland restoration and has implications for large-scale projects around the world.

The Arboretum—situated in a city at the bottom of the Lake Wingra watershed—is an important site for researching the impact of stormwater runoff in urban natural areas. In 2009, Dr. Joy Zedler, a Professor of Botany at UW–Madison, developed an interdisciplinary team* of engineers and ecologists to study the potential for wetlands to improve the quality of stormwater runoff.

Three small wetland swales were constructed to be identical for research use in the Arboretum. Surprisingly, the swales did not perform identically. Even so, the study yielded useful results. The team found that not all wetland benefits were restorable in a single wetland—there were tradeoffs. For example, one swale had the most productive vegetation but the least improved water quality; another swale provided water quality benefits but not high plant productivity. Carey writes, “In every project, the starting point is to focus work on one or two benefits. Then select one primary technique to achieve that objective.” Principles learned in small wetlands can apply to much larger restoration projects like those in Delaware Bay salt marshes and Louisiana coastal marshes, and vice versa.

John Carey, “Architects of the Swamp,” Scientific American (December 2013), 309, 74–79. Read the full story online (please note a subscription or institutional access is required to see the entire article online) or find the December issue on newsstands.

Two Arboretum Leaflets have more information about the research:
Arboretum Leaflet 27
Arboretum Leaflet 28

*Dr. Zedler collaborated with Dr. Steve Loheide, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Dr. Anita Thompson, Associate Professor of Biological Systems Engineering; and Research Assistants Jim Doherty (Botany), Jeff Miller (Civil and Environmental Engineering), and Stephanie Prellwitz (Biological Systems Engineering). The research received funding from the Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Located between Lake Wingra and the West Beltline Highway at 1207 Seminole Highway, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum features the restored prairies, forests and wetlands of pre-settlement Wisconsin. This 1,260-acre arboretum also houses flowering trees, shrubs and a world-famous lilac collection. Educational tours for groups and the general public, science and nature-based classes for all ages and abilities, and a wide variety of volunteer opportunities for groups, families and individuals are available.