Faculty voice:

Frank Telewski: The freshet of 2018

Feb. 28, 2018

Frank Telewski is a professor of plant biology and director of the W. J. Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum. Due to rain and melting snow, the week of Feb. 19 brought lots of flooding to MSU's campus, causing parts of the garden to be submerged under water.

What is a freshet you may ask? Good question! I ask that myself when I read a report by Professor William J. Beal to the State Board of Agriculture in the late 1890s. He referred to the spring freshets that inundated the garden almost on an annual basis. A quick check in Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us a freshet is: "a great rise or overflowing of a stream caused by heavy rains or melted snow." That certainly describes what happened last week, and, yes, a spring flood by any other name.

Beal Garden floodPhoto by Kurt Stepnitz

So, the W.J. Beal Botanical Garden is no stranger to flood waters in the spring time. It is the liability of being located in a flood way. In Professor Beal’s day the garden flooded on a fairly regular basis. The hydrology of the Red Cedar River watershed was quite different over 100 years ago. Few know that better than Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindermann who once shared a brief history of the watershed with me. As the land surrounding the Red Cedar River was converted to arable farm land, it had to be drained, and as farm drains were created, water input to the Red Cedar increased.

However, in the 1890s, the botanic garden was also quite different. A stream once flowed from East Lansing through campus and into Sleepy Hollow, under a stone arch bridge on West Circle Drive and through the garden on its way to the Red Cedar. At this time the garden was one to several feet lower than it is today. To alleviate the flooding, Professor Beal had the garden filled with soil, and the stream was contained in a storm sewer which now flows under the garden. This markedly reduced the frequency of flooding in the garden. However, as the decades passed, the watershed continued to be altered and more runoff came from the land that was once a forested wetland, especially with urbanization. And so flood water levels continued to rise.

Beal Garden and bridgePhoto by Kurt Stepnitz

The 1975 flood seemed to be the most severe flood the garden experienced with the depth of the water in the garden a foot or more deep than the flood last week. Retired Botanic Garden technician Mike Jones told me the water had risen up to the second step of the stairs that come down into the garden from West Circle Drive. Back then, our plant labels were mounted on wooden stakes with plywood backs. They all popped up out of the ground and began floating down the Red Cedar! Mike and another staff member quickly took a row boat out with a net to capture as many labels as possible to keep them from floating down to Lake Michigan. Because of this story, we converted all of our labels to metal stakes that won’t float away when submerged.

People frequently ask me what will happen to the plants when they are under water. The good news is the plants in the garden are still dormant from the long winter. Seeds have not yet germinated or been planted. Seedlings have not yet been moved from our greenhouse to be planted in the garden. As long as the plants are dormant and their respiration rates are relatively low, they can survive being submerged in a hypoxic environment for a few days.

Hopefully, the flood waters recede in short order and our plants can begin to dry out and respire once again. We are worried about our tulips. Time will tell if we have any damaged plants. Had this freshet occurred in a month or two when the plants were actively growing with leaves emerged, then the garden would have experienced extensive damage and loss of plants due to flood stress.

So, as I flood you with knowledge about the garden and plants, remember the word for today is "freshet!"

Frank TelewskiPhoto by Carolyn J. Miller