Providing the gift of water for poinsettias and other ornamental crops
Of the countless iconic holiday season images in American homes, perhaps the most popular and colorful of them started off as a humble bush from our neighbors to the south.
The poinsettia was introduced to this country in the late 1820s by Joel Poinsett, the first American ambassador to Mexico, but only started on the path to holiday season superstardom in the early 1900s. By 2013, poinsettias accounted for 23 percent of sales for flowering potted plants – to the tune of $146 million.
Floriculture, the aspect of horticulture than relates to ornamental crops, ranks fifth in U.S. agriculture. Production of these crops – which includes cut flowers, both potted and landscape plants, and green roofs – occurs in open fields, nurseries, greenhouses, and high tunnels.
The high demand of these crops for irrigation water is a major challenge for growers, with household use and traditional agriculture as the major competitors for water. This competition is especially severe when coupled with drought. Growers must have effective and efficient ways to both provide the quality and quantity of water they need to ensure the health of their plants and to limit the flow of nutrients and chemicals through runoff into watersheds.
That’s where the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) comes in. NIFA has provided funding for several floriculture research projects that address irrigation concerns from a variety of angles, including:
As part of a $2.7 million effort where researchers from Virginia Tech have worked since 2010 to develop protocols to manage pathogens in sustainable use – reclaimed – water sources. As of August 2014, researchers have categorized nine new species of Phytophthora – a primary cause of plant root and crown rot – from nursery irrigation systems in Virginia and Mississippi. Successful use of reclaimed water would increase the availability of water for all uses.
University of Maryland researchers are using a NIFA-administered grant of more than $5.1 million to develop a wireless sensor network capable of supporting the intensive production system requirements of field nurseries, container nurseries, greenhouse operations, and green roof systems. After only three years, the system has helped growers make more informed irrigation scheduling decisions and reduced average water applications by more than 50 percent. Smarter scheduling decreases runoff and means better production with less water.
Clemson University researchers are using Hatch Act funding to study water runoff management at ornamental nursery operations. After four years, researchers report that wetlands constructed to help remove nutrient and pathogen runoff are successful at removal rates 69 percent for total nitrogen, 39 percent for phosphorus, and 80 percent for Phytophthora. More than 630,000 gallons of water flow through these wetlands each day. This technology to filter contaminants from runoff not only helps to protect surface waters, but can also increase re-use of irrigation runoff to save potable water sources for other uses.
So, if one of these pink, white, red, or multicolored beauties is adding to your holiday cheer, you can thank Joel Poinsett, America’s nursery industry, and NIFA for adding color to the season, reducing the demand on U.S. water supplies, and protecting the nation’s waterways.
Through federal funding and leadership for research, education, and extension programs, NIFA focuses on investing in science and solving critical issues impacting people's daily lives and the nation's future. For more information, visit www.nifa.usda.gov.