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Photo: Plant physiologist and halophyte biologist measure the height of stock growing in special sand tanks. Link to photo information
Plant physiologist Catherine Grieve (left) and halophyte biologist Christy Carter measure the height of stock (Matthiola incana) growing in special sand tanks. Click the image for more information about it.

Read the magazine story to find out more.

Some Flowers Can Stand the Salt--and Save Precious Water

By Erin Peabody
August 2, 2004

With their papery-thin petals and ornate blooms, many of the fresh-cut flowers used to fill a florist's bright bouquet might seem high-maintenance to grow. But Agricultural Research Service scientist Catherine Grieve has found that some commercially important floral species--including cultivars of stock and celosia--aren't necessarily fussy when it comes to the quality of one of their key needs, water.

Grieve, a plant physiologist, works at the ARS George E. Brown Jr. Salinity Laboratory in Riverside, Calif. In that state, greenery and cut flowers such as daisies, sunflowers and statice make up a $300 million-a-year industry. But flower growers, especially along the coast and in inland valleys, are having a hard time accessing quality water that lacks potentially plant-damaging salts.

Salts--including chlorides of calcium, magnesium and sodium--often become a problem when growers recycle water repeatedly to irrigate their crops, a common practice in water-scarce regions. Salts are also easing their way into groundwater supplies along California's coastline where high demands for water, often in the form of overdrawn wells, are literally pulling seawater into freshwater aquifers.

Grieve is trying to find floral species that can progress normally through their life cycles while being irrigated with waters containing a variety of salts representative of those present in different parts of the state. Her findings can help growers make use of waters once considered undesirable, thereby cutting their costs and conserving higher-quality water resources.

With help from Donald Suarez, a soil scientist and director of the Riverside laboratory, and Christy Carter, a halophyte biologist, Grieve is studying an array of cut-flower species, including varieties of statice, sunflowers, snapdragons and celosia.

Those that have fared well for Grieve, despite the salty conditions, include cultivars of sweet-smelling Matthioloa incana, or stock; ornamental sunflower, and the more exotic Celosia species.

Read more about the research in the August issue of Agricultural Research magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.