Pittsburgh Botanic Garden at Settlers Cabin Park opens to the public

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The Pittsburgh Botanic Garden at Settlers Cabin Park opened to the public with a grand opening celebration Aug. 1 that included a visit from U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who called the garden a great example of public-private cooperation.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald also attended, and after all the hoopla associated with the visitors and media died down, the real denizens of the botanic garden took over.

They are the plants, birds, butterflies and other wildlife, which are the main attractions for visitors who turned out last weekend to walk the newly opened trails that have been carved through the first 60 acres of the garden.

Eventually, the botanic garden will encompass 460 acres in the park, which straddles North Fayette, Collier and Robinson.

Tours begin at a tent near a newly paved parking lot. Admission for adults is $9, with a $1 discount for Allegheny County residents and members of the military. Discounts also are available for children and seniors.

Visitors are given a map of the trails and a green wrist band to show that admission has been paid.

The first major attraction on the tour is the Bayer Welcome Center, the former county maintenance barn, which is still under construction and not open yet. The exterior and interior of the barn are being completely remodeled.

Beyond the welcome center, visitors make their way through a field of black-eyed Susans and other wildflowers before entering a forested section where, thanks to the cooling effect of the trees, the temperature drops by about 10 degrees.

Along the trail are interactive exhibits. One is called the Root of the Matter and shows the roots of trees that live in the soil of the forest. Children also can visit a bird’s nest big enough for them to sit in to get a sense of what it is like to be fledgling.

A miniature house is tucked into the Bookworm Glen, where children can explore what it would be like to live in the forest. Events are being planned for the house in which young people can listen to children’s stories read by volunteer tour guides.

Many of the trees and plants along the trails are tagged with markers to identity them, and the garden sports an impressive array of native species, ranging from several types of oaks to Northern Bayberry.

The garden staff and volunteers have planted hundreds of native tree saplings along the trails with netted fencing to protect them from the deer so that they can grow to maturity.

The botanic garden uses a creative solution to the problem of acid mine drainage flowing into Pinkerton Run, a small stream on the garden property. The polluted water, laden with aluminum hydroxide, was coming from an abandoned coal mine under the property.

Bob Hedin of Hedin Environmental in Mt. Lebanon designed a system that filters the water through a limestone bed and concentrates the aluminum hydroxide in a settling pond, where the aluminum can be reclaimed.

One use for the aluminum is as a glaze in ceramics.

The cleaned water is collected in a large pond, where the water quality is high enough to support fish, frogs and aquatic insects such as dragon flies that constantly skim the surface.

For those who love butterflies, a highlight of the tour is the Dogwood Meadow, an enormous field full of goldenrod, thistle and other wildflowers that attract scores of butterflies.

A number of blue bird nesting boxes and bird feeders also are placed in strategic locations along the trails to help attract and support the native bird population. Gold finches and cardinals are two of the more colorful and beautiful bird species easily seen at the botanic garden.

For those interested in history, the site includes an historic farmstead restored to circa 1790, with an apple orchard, sheep shed and herb garden.

The botanic garden is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays and 9 a.m. to dusk Saturdays.

Bob Podurgiel, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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