Drew University’s campus is known for its majestic old oak trees and beautiful natural areas, with fertile forest ecosystems, ponds, and glacial features. Several major initiatives help to preserve and restore ecological integrity to the Drew University Forest Preserve and to the entire campus.
Right on campus, the university’s 45-acre Drew Forest Preserve is a natural laboratory for student research, ecology classes, and ecological restoration. Trails are open to the public, including a self-guiding nature trail around the ponds of the Zuck Arboretum section. Natural ecosystems are also being nurtured in the center of campus, with a meadow and ever-expanding conversion of lawn to ferns and other native vegetation during students’ annual “Fern Fest” event.
Directions to the Drew University Forest Preserve’s Zuck Arboretum and Hepburn Woods:
Enter Drew University from Main Street/Madison Ave. at the traffic light entrance, called Lancaster Road, and park in the first lot, the visitor lot, to the right of the guardhouse. From the visitor lot, just walk south away from Main Street along that entrance road (it curves slightly left and then right into the next parking lot). Continue through (or alongside) this long main parking lot (still going south), with ball fields on your right and campus buildings on your left. Where the lot ends at the large Forum/Athletic complex, turn right (west) to cross a road and a bit of lawn to reach a short sidewalk that curves around the baseball outfield. Go left on this sidewalk (south) to its end, to where there are woods and deer protection fences on both sides. Both trails begin here. Enter the gate on your right to the Zuck Arboretum area, and the gate on the left to visit Hepburn woods. The gates are not locked; just lift the latch. PLEASE close the gates behind you to protect these restored ecosystems and the future forest from deer. Click here to see an area map of the location on Google Maps, or this older map depicting some of the stops along the walking path.
An exciting and far-reaching project is underway to restore ecological integrity to the Drew University Forest Preserve, including the Hepburn Woods and Zuck Arboretum. Over the years, the Drew Forest Preserve had deteriorated, like other forests throughout our region. Beneath a tree canopy of many species, the forest undergrowth was stripped by overabundant deer and was choked out by invasive plants, particularly Norway maple and garlic mustard. The canopy itself was under attack by invasive wisteria and oriental bittersweet vines, which strangle trees and convert woods to shrublands. Only with intervention was there any hope for the ecosystem to regain its structure and acquire a new generation of trees to perpetuate the forest. The project has several components:
- Protection from deer: A high-quality, 10’ deer fence with self-closing gates for pedestrian access was established to protect the forest in 2011. This was made possible by the generosity of environmentalist and naturalist Dr. Chris Hepburn, in whose honor the focal area, the Hepburn Woods, has been named.
- Control of invasive plants by teams of students and other volunteers (2008-present). For assistance and expertise, Drew University was awarded partnerships with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and with the New Jersey Audubon Society’s Private Lands Stewardship Program. Invasive plants impair wildflowers and other native plants in woods across the entire MidAtlantic region.
- Reintroduction of native plants that had been lost from the ecosystem. This successful effort to bring back natural diversity and forest structure has also restored wildlife habitat, the food web, and ecosystem integrity. Students have planted thousands of tree seedlings representing 26 native species, 85 different species of native wildflowers and ferns, and hundreds of native shrubs. In addition, other plant species and young trees naturally reestablished once protected from deer and invasive plants.
- The ongoing Drew Forest restoration effort is made possible by the generosity of native plant landscape expert Sandy Goodson, the Ken Martin and Chris Hepburn Foundation, the New Jersey Committee of the Garden Club of America, the Garden Club of Madison, the Andrew Mellon Foundation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, New Jersey Audubon Society’s Private Lands Stewardship Program, community and university volunteers, and the amazing students of Drew University.
Fern Fest - Native Plant Landscaping
Each spring, students organize an Earth Week celebration and gardening event known as Fern Fest. The community gathers to replace a section of campus lawn with diverse native ferns and wildflowers, helping to restore the forest ecosystem that once thrived here. By planting native species we restore at least some elements of the natural forest ecosystem, which will then bring back other components such as birds, butterflies, and soil fauna. Instead of a “dead zone” of exotic ornamental plants from distant continents, we create an approximation of the natural forest. Moreover, many native wildflowers are imperiled by suburban development, and by establishing new populations we hope to help stave off local extinction. Fern Fest plantings have greatly enhanced species richness and ecosystem complexity. Where only a few species of scrawny grasses and weeds once grew, some 70 native species have been planted, including 40 types of wildflowers, a dozen species of small shrubs, and a large proportion of the region’s non-wetland ferns. Over 5000 ferns, wildflowers, and low shrubs have been planted to form a lush, natural ground layer beneath our ancient trees.
In 1998, graduate student Nicole Roskos circulated a petition calling for the reforestation of the Drew campus – not just the tree layer but other layers of the forest ecosystem that were present 200 years ago. Large numbers of students, staff, and faculty members signed the petition, and a pilot project was funded by the administration. The native ferns and wildflowers of this first area impressed all with their beauty, and students then established a fund-raising tradition for expanding the restoration area each year. In addition to planting native species, Fern Fest includes other activities, depending on interests of the organizing students: tie-dying, craft and food booths, and bands playing into the evening. The end results: enhanced biodiversity on campus, a fun community celebration, and some good environmental education for all. Two student organizations work together to make Fern Fest happen: the Drew Environmental Action League and the Campus Ecoreps.
Why “native” plants? By planting native species we restore at least some elements of the natural forest ecosystem, which will then bring back other components such as birds, butterflies, and soil fauna. Instead of a “dead zone” of exotic ornamental plants from distant continents, we create an approximation of the natural forest. Moreover, many native wildflowers are imperiled by suburban development, and by establishing new populations we hope to help stave off local extinction.
Does Fern Fest increase diversity? Yes. Where only a few species of scrawny grasses and weeds once grew, some 70 native species have been planted, including 40 types of wildflowers, a dozen species of small shrubs, and a large proportion – 15 species – of the region’s non-swamp ferns. Fern Fest fundraising has also planted a dozen sizable native trees. As of 2009, over 5000 ferns, wildflowers, and low shrubs have been planted to form a lush, natural ground layer beneath our ancient trees.
What’s wrong with just planting grass and having a lawn? The center of Drew’s campus is deeply shaded by ancient white oaks and beech trees, and none of several concerted efforts to grow turf there has succeeded. The resulting bare ground was vulnerable to soil erosion and surrounding walkways filled with mud after every storm. More generally, lawns demand maintenance and are environmentally costly. Native plants, once established for a few years, will normally thrive with minimal attention.
Where else on campus have plantings focused on restoring nature? Drew University has a native plant policy. This means that only native species of trees, shrubs, ferns, and perennials are planted on campus. Extensive native plantings adorn several areas of campus in addition to the ever-expanding “Fern Fest” lands: along campus roadways from the Forum to the Back Gate, throughout the President’s House area, within the Brothers College courtyard, and all around Seminary Hall, Sitterly House, McLendon Hall, the Townhouses, and the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts. In addition, a wide diversity of native trees have been planted throughout the campus. Meanwhile, in the Drew Forest Preserve, we are removing invasive plants and working to restore lost biota of native ecosystems.
Native Plant Policy
To further enrich ecological integrity, native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers are also chosen for other plantings throughout the campus. This forward-looking policy parallels other campus sustainability policies and practices at Drew, from integrated pest management (pesticides are rarely used) to dining hall composting to LEED-certified construction to our climate action plan.
Visit Zuck Arboretum
The Drew Forest Preserve is a significant island of natural woodland in a sea of suburban development. The Forest Preserve has several sections and includes the Zuck Arboretum and Hepburn Woods. At least 120 different bird species have been observed, including spring and fall migrants, nesting birds, and raptors. Both herons and human visitors are attracted by two ponds, ecosystems rich in amphibians, turtles, dragonflies, and more. The Drew Preserve has long been an important educational resource for college students, inner-city high school students, families, and visiting community groups. The forest is also used heavily for research on plant ecology, pond ecosystems, and wildlife by faculty, students, and other scientists. Thus restoring biodiversity to this forest has far-reaching educational and scientific benefits, alongside greater integrity, complexity and resilience.
Students, faculty, and visitors are welcome to tour Drew’s Forest Preserve. Park in the Drew University visitor lot, just inside campus at the traffic light entrance, and walk south (away from Madison Ave) alongside the athletic fields through the longer parking lot to its end at the athletic complex. To your right, just a few steps west of that large building (the Simon Forum – indoor gym), you’ll find a sidewalk curving around the baseball field. This will lead you to the southwest ballfield corner, the arboretum sign and entry gates.
The Zuck Arboretum and Hepburn Woods sections of the Forest Preserve, protected by deer fencing, are being restored to vibrant diverse ecosystems (see “Forest Restoration” above). These areas are lush with returning and replanted native vegetation, freed from invasive plants and overpopulated deer. Areas closest to the entry gates are biodiverse native gardens designed by Sandy Goodson, with labelled wildflowers. There are trails in both Hepburn Woods and the Zuck Arboretum. A short self-guiding nature trail encircles two ponds in the Zuck Arboretum section, providing the opportunity to learn about New Jersey’s forests, native plants and wildlife. A rotating environmental art exhibit is displayed just inside Hepburn Woods. With questions or more information, email Professor emeritus Sara Webb (firstname.lastname@example.org).