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Nature Sanctuaries

Sweet Briar College is a liberal arts college for women in central Virginia. With more than 3,200 rural acres, it is one of the largest landholders among private colleges in the United States. The college provides outstanding opportunities for education and research in field biology and environmental science. Prospective students are invited to contact Admissions. Scientists and naturalists interested in visiting or establishing study sites on the campus are invited to contact Professor Linda Fink.

The Charles W. Carry Nature Sanctuary (45 acres) is a mature white oak forest flanking the entrance road. There are no marked trails, but visitors are welcome to wander through it on foot.

In addition to 200-year-old white oaks and 100-year-old tulip poplars, you will find massive beech trees, red oaks, hickories, black gum, a large population of umbrella magnolias and a high diversity of spring wildflowers. Along the creek on the west side is the largest sycamore on campus. Some of the wildflowers along the creek were apparently planted by students years before the area was set aside as a preserve. We have no record of which plants were introduced and which were already in the area.

This first College sanctuary was established in 1958 following provisions of the Charles W. Carry Sanctuary Endowment. The sanctuary boundaries were expanded in the late 1960's. Recognition of the value of this oak forest is widespread. Professor A.E. Radford, Emeritus Professor of Botany at the University of North Carolina, brought his classes to this forest and considered it to be "the best White-Oak forest seen in the Piedmont." A "Sierra Club Naturalist's Guide: The Piedmont" (1980) included it as one of 29 unique deciduous habitats found from New Jersey to Georgia.

Although protected from cutting or development, the sanctuary is far from undisturbed. Hurricane Hazel in 1954 blew down many large white oaks, which were subsequently removed. Invasive plants encroach along the margins, and an immense clone of an exotic groundcover, the periwinkle Vinca minor, carpets the understory of more than an acre. Invasions by non-native plants and animals are one of the world's major conservation problems and Sweet Briar's forests are not immune to this onslaught. A potential disaster for the sanctuary, which the college must address, is that a 70+-year-old sewer line runs through the center of the sanctuary.

The 32-acre Constitution Oaks Sanctuary, contiguous with the Carry Sanctuary and east of the Florence Elston Inn, protects at least 90 white oaks that we believe to be greater than 200 years old, and almost three dozen older than 300 years. Its name celebrates the fact that this forest was already flourishing when the United States Constitution was drawn up in 1787. Most eastern forests are abandoned farmland and contain few trees more than a century old. Large tracts of mature forests are ecologically priceless. The sanctuary is also home to the only naturally-occurring stand of Hepatica on campus.

Along the southeast edge of the Constitution Oaks is the Mabel Thacher Edwards Wildflower Garden. Mabel was passionate about the wildflowers and ferns of the Appalachians. She knew where and when every campus wildflower peeked above the soil, and greeted each, common or rare, with delight. In collaboration with her husband Buck, she put together an Annotated List of the Wild Vascular Plants of the Sweet Briar College Property.

In April 2001, the Board of Directors voted to extend the northern boundary of this sanctuary to Elijah Road.

The Boone-Prior Preserve (11 acres) is also a hardwood forest with large white oaks, tulip poplars and hickories and an understory of flowering dogwoods. It differs from the Carry Sanctuary in having very few beech trees. Located next to the science building, the sanctuary is used extensively by biology students. Unlike the Carry and Constitution Oaks sanctuaries, it is a forest island surrounded by manicured lawns and hayfields and bisected by a heavily-used bridle trail. Because of its small size, isolation and surrounding land use, it is noticeably disturbed by herbicides, mowing, invasive alien plants and trail erosion. This site is used for informative comparisons with our less-disturbed woodlands.

A small pond at the southeast corner of the sanctuary, known informally as Guion Pond, is a favorite destination for campus children, artists, field biologists and dogs. In early spring, its surface is dotted with egg masses of spotted salamanders; throughout the year it is home to crayfish, waterscorpions, tadpoles and myriad other aquatic invertebrates and amphibians. The Guion Pond Woodland Garden is planted with native shrubs and wildflowers.

The Big Oaks Woodland Preserve (15 acres) protects the main tributary stream for Sweet Briar Lake, as well as a rich beech-oak-hickory woodland containing chestnut oaks, red oaks, and the largest white oak on campus. It is a heterogeneous area that was formerly pasture, pine woodland and grazed hardwood forest. The steep hillsides have numerous exposed boulders. At the bases of the beech trees can be found beech drops, their saprophytic symbionts. The preserve can be reached by walking behind the green barn along the Dairy Loop.

COSIP Transect is a 1-kilometer-long transect established in 1970-73 by Buck Edwards, with funds provided by an NSF College Science Improvement Program grant to Sweet Briar. Located in Fern Woods southwest of the Riding Center, the north-south line traverses second-growth forest. The southern end of the transect is relatively flat ridgetop of mostly young white oaks and pines. Continuing northward, the transect traverses steeper terrain across five narrow valleys and ridges. Most of this is covered with mixed deciduous forest averaging 70-80 years of age, with chestnut oaks and tulip poplars being most numerous.

Initially all of the trees in a 6-meter-wide strip > 12 inch DBH (diameter at breast height) were identified, measured, and mapped. From 1988-91, mapping was expanded to include all trees in a 40-meter-wide strip that were > 6 inch (15 cm) DBH. In summer 1999, Andrea Capano '99, supported by the Honors Program, remapped all the trees down to 10 cm DBH. Every tree received a unique, permanent aluminum tag. We will now be able to track the fates of individual trees and map the distributions of other organisms in relation to them.

In April 2001, the COSIP transect plus a 100-foot buffer strip was given permanent sanctuary status.

Other permanent grids are located in the Constitution Oaks and Boone-Prior Sanctuaries, and trees in substantial sections of them have also been mapped. In the summer of 2000, with support from the Sanders Fund for Ecological Studies and Natural Areas, two Sweet Briar students and a University of Virginia graduate student completed the mapping and tagging of trees in these grids.

North and east of Sweet Briar Lake, the Indiana Fletcher Williams Preserve (250 acres) is hilly, primarily second-growth woodlands. Some areas are primarily scrub pine, others are mixed pine and hardwoods, and others are heavily cut-over hardwoods. Two streams and miles of trails loop through it: Sweet Briar Creek flows north from the dam of the lower lake, and feeds into Williams Creek that traverses the sanctuary near its north boundary. The topography is relatively flat above the lake and drops off sharply in steep slopes and deep ravines to the north and east. Other features include an old rock quarry, a fine stand of fairly large beech trees and our most significant populations of several nonwoody plants, including several orchids. Because it is large, contains abundant water and has a fair diversity of habitats, it is rich in wildlife. This preserve has become increasingly popular with campus hikers, mountain bikers and runners. A trail map is posted near the Boathouse.

Ecology Woods (formerly called the Water Quality Preserve, Field #4 or Ecology Field, 35 acres) is a former pasture that has been undergoing secondary succession since it was protected from cows in 1969. Vegetation has been surveyed periodically, providing good documentation of the ecological changes occurring as woody vegetation invades.

Pyrola Springs Preserve (9 acres). Established in 1971 as the Princess Pine Nature Sanctuary, this small tract is within Fern Woods, a larger second-growth forest southwest of the Riding Center. This little-known preserve protects colonies of several plants not found commonly elsewhere on campus, including princess pine, shining club-moss, pyrola, green woodland orchid, and cinnamon fern. This area is distinct in vegetation because it is damp (two natural springs feed tiny streams) and because the forest has been relatively undisturbed for almost a century.