Hastings High School students in Joe Beattie's field biology class spent the morning Wednesday, Oct. 4, at Vermillion River Linear Park putting their lessons into practice. Students had the opportunity to clear out invasive plant species and then repopulate the area with native species.

Friends of the Mississippi River managed the day's events with financial support coming from Flint Hills Resources, United Way and 3M Cottage Grove.

The day started off with students clearing out sections of common burdock - an invasive plant species with biennial seeding. The burs from this plant provided students a glimpse into the challenge of clearing out large, heavily-invaded areas.

"We've cleared out large sections - from Applebee's across the Vermillion (River)," student Dalton DeBuono said. "A plot was picked to clear out and the city is taking the scraps out of the area."

The plant was chosen to be removed not only because of its invasive status, but the timing was right. Common burdock has a two-year lifespan and FMR wanted to eradicate the plant before seeds were spread, continuing the unwanted growth.

Removing common burdock was just part of the students work, however. Repopulating the now sparse habitat with native plant species is equally important as getting rid of invasives.

"Planting native plants into an area to give structure, diversity and habitat for wildlife is important," ecologist Alex Roth with FMR said. "You want a tiered diversity - shrubs, trees, etc. You need all of that for a functioning woodland system."

Three native plant species were brought in for the students to plant: Gray's sedge, Pennsylvania sedge and green-headed coneflower. Four native shrub species were also planted: Gray dogwood, pagoda dogwood, common chokecherry and nannyberry trees.

The day was a chance for students to apply classroom lessons in the field and get involved in conservation and restoration work close to home. Roth said FMR has been restoring Vermillion River Linear Park with students since 2015, but has worked with the school on other projects even longer.

"Each year at least one student (from this exercise) moves on to education focused on biology," Roth said. "It's cool because kids get to actually apply what they learn in the classroom out here in the environment."