EAU CLAIRE — Eau Claire middle school students probably won’t get a crack at collecting data from about 100 new trees planted at UW-Eau Claire’s Bollinger Fields until 2021 or 2022 — but university scientists and college students got a head start on the project this week.

On a warm Friday afternoon at Bollinger Fields in Eau Claire, UW-Eau Claire assistant professor of biology Nora Mitchell directed about 12 students, faculty, staff and volunteers on how to plant roughly 100 poplar cuttings, laid out in two grids.

“Science isn’t just indoor science or wet lab science,” Mitchell said. “It’s OK to get dirty doing science as well.”

UW-Eau Claire has been chosen, among 18 U.S. universities and arboretums, to participate in a nationwide study of how poplar trees react to different environments and the effects of climate change.

Due to the pandemic, UW-Eau Claire did not hold its typical Arbor Day celebrations. But this project is an opportunity to honor the campus’ Tree Campus Higher Education designation, said Daria Hutchinson, UW-Eau Claire landscape architect and arborist.

The new poplar trees will be planted between sports areas at Bollinger Fields, and the university will install signs there about the project, Hutchinson said.

Middle school students will get to share in the fun: They’ll collect data and study the poplar “mini-gardens” during the project’s three- to five-year timeline, Mitchell said.

The two types of poplar being planted are black cottonwood, or California poplar, and balsam poplar — along with hybrids of the two.

“There are a lot of different common names for these two species, but colloquially anything in this genus is often referred to as ‘poplar,’” Mitchell explained.

Poplar trees are ideal for the study because they grow relatively quickly and respond well to their environment, she added.

Starting in spring 2021, UW-Eau Claire students and faculty will begin looking at different traits of the trees, studying when they leaf out and “seeing where they’re at at different times,” Mitchell said.

That’s when researchers had hoped to bring in middle school students to help gather data. Due to COVID-19 that might not be possible in spring, Mitchell said, but younger students will eventually be able to pitch in.

Climate change impact

Researchers at North Dakota State University, primarily biological sciences assistant professor Jill Hamilton, are spearheading the nationwide study. It’s being funded by the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research program, according to ArbNet, an arboreta community that’s also collaborating on the study.

Hamilton and her team have collected cuttings from across North America for the study, Mitchell said.

All clusters of young trees being planted at the 18 campuses and arboreta are cuttings from the same set of parent trees, according to ArbNet.

Researchers want to find out how the exact same plants react to different climates, weather patterns and different levels of climate change, Mitchell said.

While some tree species typically adapt to their environment, letting them maximize their growth and avoid the risk of frost damage, climate change is disrupting those “seasonal climate cues,” Hamilton said in an ArbNet press release.

The researchers will study how the trees adapt to their new environment, Mitchell said.

“Harnessing multiple sites is really valuable,” she said. “We might know that at our site, (certain) hybrids leaf out earlier than other ones ... by having multiple gardens where we have the same trees planted, we can try and disentangle what’s based on genetics and what’s based on the environment.”

The “biggest question this grant is trying to answer” is if hybrid poplars will adapt better to the environment than their parent species have, Mitchell said.

Larger poplar tree gardens will be hosted at North Dakota State University and Virginia Tech University.

“Instead of having Dr. Hamilton and her team planting 20 gardens across the U.S., they can plant one or two and send instructions to the rest of us,” Mitchell said. “It’s mutually beneficial.”

Both Mitchell and Hutchinson are excited to bring middle school students in on the project, when it can happen safely.

“It’s really nice to get students involved with hands-on projects,” Hutchinson added. “Class work is one thing, but I think everybody enjoys getting outside and getting their hands dirty a little bit.”

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.