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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

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Los Lunas Scientists Attracted to Native Plant Research

LOS LUNAS -- Bare cottonwood poles and peculiar-looking pinon seedlings are beautiful to researchers at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

They can visualize these native plants repairing eroded roadsides across the state, holding streambanks along the Rio Grande and reclaiming strip-mined land in the Four Corners area. Some trees will provide new roosts for birds at Bosque del Apache, a national wildlife refuge near Socorro. Other species may end up at the Grand Canyon or other national parks in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Utah.

"The advantage to using native plants for these kinds of revegetation projects is that they're adapted to our insects and lack of water," says Ron Hooks, the science center's superintendent. "Native plants can tolerate days when we have snow in the morning and bright sunshine in the afternoon. A plant brought in from some other state or country wouldn't be able to tolerate that kind of abuse."

Unfortunately, native plants are in short supply in the Southwest. Little is known about commercially producing native plants for large-scale projects. Better planting techniques are needed to overcome the cost and difficulty of conservation efforts.

Since moving to the Los Lunas location 40 years ago, scientists with NMSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have collaborated to find answers.

"We share scientists, the labor pool and the greenhouses," Hooks says. "We can have more for our money by doing that."

Ramona Garner, an agronomist with USDA's Natural Resource Conservation Service, works at the Plant Materials Center housed in Los Lunas. Currently, her mission is collecting seed from promising species, mostly in the Four Corners area. She experiments to learn how to grow it in the greenhouse and then the field. Varieties are released for commercial production after they've successfully passed screening and planting tests.

"Most of the plants we work with are unavailable from commercial sources," Garner says. "We're trying to develop techniques for cleaning seeds, propagating plants -- the whole gamut -- to get these products out and into the marketplace.

To date, the Plant Materials Center has released 31 grasses, leafy plants, shrubs and trees for conservation -- more than any other center of its type.

NMSU scientists, meanwhile, are doing complementary work on tree planting techniques that make conservation projects easier and less expensive. In particular, their research has focused on re-planting cottonwoods to prevent erosion along streambanks, where the water table is high.

"Trees that can be planted in those areas can be quite expensive," Hooks says. "One way to go about it is to produce what we call a large cutting or cottonwood pole, up to 15 feet tall."

These dormant trees without roots and branches are kept moist in metal bins of water until planting time. Each batch is color-coded for distribution to a state or federal agency. One bunch is bound for a flood control district in Roswell, another for Santa Clara Pueblo south of Espanola, and a third for the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.

Once the poles arrive at their destinations, planters will use augers to drill down to the water table. Trees planted in these holes will leaf out and begin growing roots within two months.

"Most of our work has been with cottonwoods, but we're also looking at other species, such as willows," Hooks says. "Along streambanks, we're trying to revegetate with native plants instead of using the salt cedar, which has come in and invaded, and is not a native plant by any means."

By summer's end, the greenhouse will be filled with seedlings from 50 different native species, thousands of cottonwood poles will be growing in their new locations and Los Lunas scientists will be thinking about next year's supply of seedlings and trees to keep the Southwestern landscape healthy.