College entangled in hairy plant preservation

Ever heard of hairy honeysuckle? Probably not. However, the College has played an integral role in the discovery and preservation of the very rare species since 1817.

In 1988, the hairy plant proved it was capable of having quite an impact on local affairs. Construction of the College’s $3 million, 70-plot housing development on Pine Cobble was put on hold due to the discovery of a large plot of hairy honeysuckle. Prior to the find on Pine Cobble, there had been only two discoveries of the plant reported in Massachusetts.

According to Anthony Janiero, assistant director of construction services at the time, the College was not initially required by law to stop its housing project or alter building plans. However, Janiero noted, the College wanted to act in a “responsible manner.”

After a thorough investigation of the site by representatives of the National Heritage Program, the Conservation Commission and the Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation among others, a series of negotiations with the state resulted in an agreement that would ensure the preservation of the species without completely halting construction.

For the following 10 years, Hank Art, professor of biology, was intensely involved with the monitoring of the Pine Cobble site. The College’s agreement with the State of Massachusetts permitted the housing development to be built around the areas naturally claimed by the hairy honeysuckle.

Hairy honeysuckle, Lonicera hirsuta, is a native vining and high-climbing honeysuckle. According to Joan Edwards, professor of biology, “[It] grows on calcareous, or basic, soils, has hairy leaves – hence the common name – and produces flashy tubular yellow, sometimes orange, flowers in the spring.”

In Massachusetts, hairy honeysuckle is very rare. Found in only three locations, it is classified as endangered within the state. The species’ range is centered around the Great Lakes; the Berkshires make up the easternmost edge of the hairy honeysuckle’s distribution.

The first site of hairy honeysuckle in Williamstown was found in 1817 by Emory Washburn, a Williams student at the time. Enrolled in a botany class taught by highly-praised professor Amos Eaton, Washburn and other classmates explored the Berkshire area for a new species.

Having returned to his alma mater to teach and inspire research, Eaton was given the opportunity to name the plant. However, succeeding botanists did not find the site again until 1992.

Edwards explained that hairy honeysuckle populations in Massachusetts are widely separated from each other and the majority of other sites throughout the United States. With Edwards’ guidance, Tiffany Talley ’99 did a senior thesis on local hairy honeysuckle plots. Together they collected genetic fingerprints of the three Massachusetts populations, as well as a few at Isle Royale National Park in Michigan.

According to Edwards, the initial studies indicate that “Massachusetts populations are genetically distinct from each other and even more different from the Isle Royale populations. Thus if there is an interest in preserving genetic diversity of the species, the preservation of Massachusetts populations are critical.”

Currently, the plots of hairy honeysuckle are thriving on Pine Cobble. Living on their own development sites, they are protected by the state from losing their naturally claimed property.