Plant producers, representatives from government agencies and private companies attended a unique field day to discuss the certification of wetland grasses during a field day at the LSU AgCenter Burden Center in Baton Rouge in April.

Participants heard results of the LSU AgCenter plant breeding program and how they could be involved in the certification and production process.

The certification project began in 1998 through collaboration with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in the collection and the evaluation process and is the first project of its type, said LSU AgCenter coastal plants breeder Carrie Knott.

To reduce erosion, smooth cordgrass plugs are planted in saline marsh restoration projects each year. In most cases, the only smooth cordgrass variety used is Vermilion, which was released by NRCS in 1989.

Vermilion is adapted to Louisiana’s climate and as a result is used extensively in restoration projects throughout Louisiana, Knott said. “The problem with widespread use of only one smooth cordgrass variety is if one plant is susceptible to a particular stress -- be it disease, insect or environmental – other plants will be susceptible to the same stress.”

The main goal of the smooth cordgrass breeding program is to develop superior, genetically diverse clonal and seed-based varieties of smooth cordgrass.

The development of clonal varieties essentially involves the selection of superior lines and the maintenance of the identity of these lines. Rhizomes from plants in the wild that demonstrate desirable vegetative performance are collected and studied.

“The clones are planted at various locations along Louisiana’s coast, and the vegetative performance of each clone is compared to Vermilion,” Knott said.

Vermilion is used as the standard for smooth cordgrass because it is the only released variety.

If the performance of the experimental clones is found to meet or exceed Vermilion, they will be retained within the breeding program and evaluated for their relatedness to Vermilion. If the experimental lines are found to be genetically different from Vermilion, or not very closely related, these clones will be considered for release to the public. Once clones are released to the public they are available to restoration practitioners for use in restoration projects.

LSU AgCenter coastal marsh plant breeder Herry Utomo is developing seed-based propagation technology at the LSU AgCenter Rice Research Station at Crowley. His research includes using at aerial seeding of coastal plants to cover more area with less labor.

“The core of any breeding program is the collection, evaluation and selection,” Knott said. “The biggest part is the selection, which requires good evaluation data.” Therefore, the LSU AgCenter began the breeding program to develop other acceptable varieties.

Typically with any breeding program, it could take 10, 15 or 20 years from the first collection until a plant can be released to the producers. 

“We are right at the 15-year mark, so we are right on track,” Knott said.

 Knott presented performance data followed by a discussion on the deployment, significance and application of three varieties.

“Since there is so much diversity in smooth cordgrass in Louisiana, collection of the different populations was a monumental task,” said Knott. “The collection began in the fall of 1998. Then in the spring of 1999 the seeds were germinated, and we looked at thousands and thousands of seedlings and lines.”

From those collections, the numbers was whittled down to the six that are being released.  

Leroy Kennair, owner of Kennair’s Nursery, LLC, came from Plaquemines Parish to get more information about growing these plants as part of his business. 

“In order to grow a product and make a profit, you have to know what the base price is of your investment,” he said. “Things may look good on paper, but it may not be practical.”

As part of the field day, participants were given a tour of the smooth cordgrass nursery where LSU AgCenter weed management specialist Eric Webster showed how irrigation and other systems work to produce the varieties that are being released.