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Red Cedar River Restoration

‘On the banks of the Red Cedar’ is a phrase known to every Spartan that has spent time on this incredible campus. The Red Cedar River has been a source of entertainment, beauty, connection, and calming. The river also serves as a biotic corridor for flora and fauna, habitat for native birds, bats, fish, mussels and especially plants. Some native species found along or in the river on our very campus are listed as state threatened or endangered. Yet the river is in peril. Due to flooding and stream velocity, the banks are being undercut and large trees along the banks are falling into the river. Invasive species are driving out native species. 

In 2018, MSU hired GEI Consultants to evaluate the riverbank and they prioritized areas that needed bank stabilization. The 1st phase of this project was completed in 2020. Stabilization techniques were applied to prevent erosion and native Michigan plants that are adapted to the periodic flooding were installed. Plans are now in the design phase for continued restoration of approximately 500 feet to complete a stretch of river that starts at the Beal Street bridge down to the library pedestrian bridge. This is the entire stretch of the river opposite the Garden.  

Because the Garden manages such an extensive section of the riverbank, we must be good stewards of this precious natural resource. Years ago, the Garden staff began to remove invasive species along our section of the riverbank and replace those with native plants and shrubs. In 2022, we began a more extensive project to create a riparian showcase that can be a model of what the riverbank could look like, and use that to educate the public about Michigan’s rivers and the threats they’re experiencing.


The first step in restoring the riverbank within the Garden will be establishing a baseline of what name and non-native plants are growing there. Prior to 2022, only incidental records were made. The riverbank within the Garden boundaries has largely been left untended, which explains the rich native flora that can be found there. However, many invasive plant species have crept in and other non-native species have likely been planted by staff in the past with little record-keeping. Plant inventory work began in 2022, led by one of our Beal Scholars interns, Jake Mantela. A species list compiled by him, with a rich amount of associated data, can be downloaded here, as well as a list of collected specimensThis work will continue, so we can monitor the success of the restoration project.


To begin this project, we have stepped up removal of invasive plant species along the riverside. Invasive species compete for resources like water, nutrients and sunlight, while often lacking the extensive root systems of native plants to hold the riverbank in place. We have aggressively acted to remove noxious (and obnoxious) invasive plants like black swallowwort (Vinetoxium nigrum), common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), honeysuckle (Lonicera species), goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria), lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), hedge parsley (Torilis japonica) and even ditch lily (Hemerocallis fulva). This will be a continuing effort and will require constant vigilance.


In many places in the Garden, visitors trample plants to get close to the river, creating paths and open soil that erode more easily when the water is high. Soil erosion further destabilizes the bank and more plants are lost, creating a destructive cycle. We are creating deterrents to reduce foot traffic. These consist of low fencing, so as not to obstruct the views, that are made of branches of an invasive species, autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), collected from other MSU properties along the Red Cedar River.


We've also begun planting native species along the riverbank. We’re planting in bare areas to restore the vegetation to further prevent erosion. We’re also planting where we have removed invasive species. We’re choosing Michigan threatened and endangered plants, plants that stabilize the soil, plants that provide pollen or nectar to help support our pollinators, and plants that provide nutritious food for birds. 


By revegetating the riverbank with native plants, we’re creating improved habitat for all of the animals that use the riverbank and improving water quality for those animals in the river. We are also partnering with IPF Landscape services to leave standing trunks when trees along the river in the Garden die. This provides habitat for native bats and birds. As campus moves towards greater sustainability we should see improved river health and water quality. 


Because the Garden has a mission to educate, we’ll be explaining and highlighting our effort in several ways. We have already been providing tours of the riverbank restoration and will continue to do so at public events. Interpretive signage will be installed–both short term “Pardon our Mess” signs, and longer-term education signs that explain the importance of the work and encourage others to do what they can. Please visit the riverbank, see what we’re doing, learn about Michigan riparian ecosystems, and get involved in helping to restore our native habitats, on campus or elsewhere.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Alan Prather (left) and Derrick Turner, University Communications (center, right).