Students Encounter Eco-Culture Along the Cynwyd Heritage Trail

Monday, July 19, 2010

PHILADELPHIA (July 19, 2010) - The names of the plants are whimsical, evoking ancient mythology and folklore: Venus’ looking glass, enchanter’s nightshade, Asian dayflower, Dianthus armeria. Growing alongside the dainty wildflowers are pernicious invasive species: mile-a-minute weed, porcelainberry, Japanese knotweed, common mullein.

Cynwyd TrailThese plants, and a myriad more, radiate along a 2.5-mile stretch of unused land lying between Cynwyd Station and the Manayunk Viaduct on SEPTA’s R6 Line. Several years ago, SEPTA leased the area to Lower Merion Township, and in the next year, the Cynwyd Heritage Trail, a Rails to Trails linear park, will officially open to the public.

This summer, as work on it continues, the Trail is also functioning as a classroom/lab for Saint Joseph’s University botanist Karen Snetselaar, Ph.D., and her students, who are creating a list of the plants that grow along the railroad bed, the slopes created when the railway was built and the surrounding woods. The information will then be given to Lower Merion Township.

“Species composition is changing as the Trail is developed,” says Snetselaar, chair and professor of biology. “It’s important that we have a clear picture of its plant diversity before and after trail building.”

To date, the group – Snetselaar and four undergraduate recipients of SJU Summer Scholars grants – have identified and pressed over 100 species, and expect to add many more to the collection by the time the project ends in August. Snetselaar says this information could be shared with Trail visitors, helping them to enjoy the diverse plants found there.

Cynwyd TrailThe four Scholars working on the plant species list – Megan Smith of Ewing Township, N.J., Nadia Pollard of Oxon Hill, Md., Peggy Nguyen of Springfield, Pa., and Brian Calhoon of Newark, De. – are doing independent research investigating other topics, but volunteered to travel the Trail on sunny mornings with Snetselaar – who is also volunteering her time and expertise – carrying reference books to identify the specimens and presses to capture them.

Saint Joseph’s Summer Scholars Program (SSP) gives students the opportunity to work closely and collaboratively with faculty mentors on research projects. Scholars are required to write about their work and present it publicly later in the school year. SSP participants receive a stipend of $3,200, and have the option of on-campus housing at a reduced cost.

For her SSP research, junior biology major Smith is doing seed bank assessment by sampling soil from different areas to gain a better understanding of the Trail’s potential plant diversity. “We’re using a ‘coring’ method to collect the seeds,” says Smith. “We take small cylinders and press them into the ground to extract a compressed core, which is then planted in flats in SJU’s greenhouse and monitored for growth.” The hope is that among the weeds that will inevitably sprout from the samples, there will also be some more desirable native species. 

Snetselaar explains that when SEPTA owned the land, vegetation was constantly cut back and sprayed with chemicals to stop weed growth on the tracks. This led to a dominance of weedy species, which are adapted to this type of disturbance.

Adds Smith, “The seed cores help us learn about the natural history of the soil, and can aid in the restoration of the Trail’s plant life.”

Nadia Pollard, a junior biology major at Lincoln University who received an SSP grant from Saint Joseph’s – made possible by funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute – is studying soil microbes with Snetselaar, but is fascinated by her time spent on the Trail.

“Working on the Trail has been a great learning experience,“ says Pollard. “I think it’s amazing how many different types of plants grow spontaneously in a single area. It’s also interesting that out of everything we have identified, not much is native to this locale.”

But Snetselaar isn’t surprised by the dearth of native plants. “Many people don’t realize how little of the vegetation around us was here prior to the European settlement of North America,” she says. “When immigrants brought their favorite plants to this continent, many of them escaped from their fields and gardens and became established in woodlands and meadows.”

They also flourished along the R6 Line. Snetselaar points to a clump of trees with distinctive heart-shaped leaves which are growing on a slope that illustrate the plant and cultural heritage of the Cynwyd Trail. “Those are princess trees, sometimes called empress, which might have been brought to this country by families from China or Japan, where they are native. The wood is very strong, and resistant to fire. It was prized for ceremonial boxes and bridal chests,” she says.

Background: Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1851, Saint Joseph's University advances the professional and personal ambitions of men and women by providing a demanding, yet supportive, educational experience. One of only 141 schools with a Phi Beta Kappa chapter and AACSB business school accreditation, Saint Joseph's is home to 4,500 full-time undergraduates and 3,200 graduate, part-time and doctoral students. Steeped in the 450-year Jesuit tradition of scholarship and service, Saint Joseph's was named to the 2009 President's Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll for General Community Service. The University strives to be recognized as the preeminent Catholic comprehensive university in the Northeast.  

Media Contact

Patricia Allen, Associate Director of University Communications, 610-660-3240,

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