Texas A&M University-Kingsville

Collaborative Effort Showcases Native Plant Work in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

KINGSVILLE - June 04, 2009

Contact: Julie Navejar
julie.navejar@tamuk.edu or 361.593.2590

Healthy native plant communities and seed fields of native plants aren’t common sites across much of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. But, work by Rio Farms, Inc., South Texas Natives (STN)of Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI), United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) may someday change that. Through a cooperative effort, these entities are working to develop native plants for restoration needs in South Texas.

About 50 participants attended a field day and luncheon recently, highlighting the ongoing native plant work at Rio Farms in Monte Alto. In the group were representatives from several state and government agencies, as well a diverse group of citizens made up of seed salesmen, nurserymen, master gardeners and naturalists, and local agricultural producers. “The diversity of participants at the field day is a testament to the demand for native plants in South Texas,” said Forrest Smith, STNProject Coordinator. “From wildlife habitat restoration, to use in backyard wildscapes, to use as alternative crops, native plants are important to people from all walks of life in South Texas.”

Participants were shown an evaluation location where native plant collections from across the 33 counties of South Texas are planted to determine if development of the plant is feasible. More than 500 collections representing 27 different native species have been planted and evaluated here since 2004. “Evaluation plots are used to find native plant material that will work for the various restoration needs in South Texas. Not all native plants are the same, some populations have traits that make them well-suited for specific restoration use,” said Smith. 

Evaluation plots of one now uncommon South Texas species, big bluestem, were discussed in detail. “Big bluestem was historically an important plant species in native grasslands in the coastal prairies and sand plains of South Texas, but overgrazing has eliminated the species from many areas,” said Smith. 

STNpersonnel have scoured the region to obtain 50 or so populations of this important grass and planted them at Rio Farms to evaluate plant characteristics. In coming years, they hope to make a seed release of the species for restoration use. “Big bluestem is a versatile plant, it provides structure and cover for wildlife like grassland birds, forage for livestock, and is a great plant for native landscaping,” he continued. 
Another plant discussed at the evaluation plots was slender grama. This fast growing native grass was developed for reclamation and restoration of highly disturbed sites like highway rights of way and oil and gas production sites. “The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) has long wanted native grasses to stabilize and restore disturbed rights-of-way in South Texas. Short, easy to establish grasses like slender grama meet this need, and may help reduce TxDOT’s future mowing cost on highway rights of way,” said Smith.

Most importantly, the planting and unwanted invasion of exotic grasses like Kleberg bluestem is stopped.  A release named Dilley germplasm slender grama developed by STNand collaborators is already commercially available from Douglas King Seed Company in San Antonio. Seed harvested from fields at Rio Farms is sent directly to the commercial producers, who plant it and in turn make the release available for purchase by the general public. 

At the next stop, STNseed production and commercialization manager Keith Pawelek showed several large scale seed production fields of native plants. Pawelek and STNpersonnel work closely with Rio Farms personnel to develop the techniques and methodology needed to farm native plant seed. Rio Farms’ extensive background in crop development and research is an invaluable contribution to this aspect of STN. Land, irrigation, equipment and personnel are pooled to increase small seed collections of native plants from remote rangelands of South Texas to a level where commercial producers can seed and harvest large production fields.

 “Many of the species STN works with have never been produced at this scale,” said Pawelek. “Often times we start with a small amount of seed, little background of the species’ growth and production requirements, herbicide tolerances or even the best harvest techniques.” 

Working with Andy Scott and Juan Garza of Rio Farms, research projects and novel farming techniques are used to provide both seed and production technology to interested commercial seed producers. “The end result of this process is large quantities of native plant seed to meet the restoration needs in South Texas,” said Smith. 

John Lloyd-Reilley, manager of the USDA NRCS E. “Kika” de la Garza Plant Materials Center, another invaluable STN partner, also contributed to the field program. He highlighted a cooperative release, mariah germplasm hooded windmillgrass. Hooded windmillgrass is a native species that can be used in highway right-of-way reseeding, and in rangeland plantings. “The Plant Materials Center and STNare natural partners in providing native seed and plant technology for South Texas,” said Lloyd-Reilley.

Following lunch, a tour of a restoration site at TPWD’s Taormina Wildlife Management Area was conducted. TPWD personnel and CKWRI researchers have begun to put the native seed developed through the work done at Rio Farms, and other locations by STN and the Plant Materials Center to use here. In research funded by TPWD, an adapted native seed mix was used to restore a series of abandoned cropland sites. Results to date show much promise in the use of native seed mixes to restore retired croplands, provide quality habitat for wildlife, and help prevent unwanted monocultures of exotic grasses. 

Also discussed at the field day were potential production opportunities for valley farmers and nurserymen. Demand for native plants in the horticultural industry and for urban landscaping was evidenced by the large number of field day participants who are extension horticulturists or from the Master Gardeners Program of Texas Agrilife Extension. The Valley’s reliance on birding, butterfly watching and ecotourism makes native plants the obvious choice for residential and commercial landscaping in an increasingly urban area.

Other discussions at the field day involved potential opportunities for native plant seed production in the Valley. Large restoration projects like highway rights of way, pipeline easements, wind farms and conservation plantings require large quantities of seed to restore.

As evidenced by the field tours, the Lower Rio Grande Valley is the ideal location to produce seed of many native plants, because of the ample irrigation supply, favorable soils and long growing season. “The potential for small farms to diversify, or become more profitable through small niche markets is very exciting,” said Dale Murden, Rio Farms general manager.  “Native seed production requires less water than many traditional crops, and the seed has the potential to benefit important restoration efforts across the South Texas region,” Smith added. 

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