LAFAYETTE — The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology is helping to ensure that certain native plant species do not vanish forever from Louisiana’s landscape.
ULL is part of the Louisiana Native Plant Initiative, which aims to collect, preserve, increase and study vanishing native grasses, flowering plants and legumes from Louisiana’s ecosystems, according to the organization’s mission statement.
The Native Plant Initiative is a 19-member consortium made up of universities, governmental agencies and nonprofits.
Its goal is to develop a native plant seed industry that will supply plant materials for restoration, revegetation, roadside plantings and the ornamental plant industry, said Scott D. Edwards, state resource conservationist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and a co-founder of the Native Plant Initiative.
Most of the 36 species being cultivated at ULL’s Center for Ecology and Environmental Technology were found along railroad tracks, where relatively pristine prairie remnants can sometimes still be found, said Andre Daugereaux, operations manager at CEET.
“We start from literally nothing and work our way up until we have relatively large amounts of seed,” Daugereaux said.
That includes bizarre hyper-pollinators like the rattlesnake master, or Gaillardia aestivalis, known as yellow Indian blanket, which, Daugereaux said, would make an excellent landscaping candidate.
“Even after it flowers, it stays this bright purple color for a while,” he said.
On Tuesday, Daugereaux and Troy Primeaux, site manager for the Native Plant Initiative, walked through one of the two greenhouses that occupy CEET’s 51-acre site near Carencro. About 10 of those acres are devoted to the Native Plant Initiative’s efforts.
Primeaux said some of the plants they deal with are among the last of their kind.
Each seems to have its own quirks or stories, Daugereaux said.
He pointed to the Silphium laciniatum, or the compass plant.
The plant sends down a tap root as deep as 15 feet into the ground, and its leaves face north or south to maximize the plant’s exposure to sunlight, Daugereaux said.
“During the heat of the summer, if you hold your hands to it, the leaves are ice cold,” Daugereaux said.
Edwards said there is growing interest from both the public and private sectors to use locally adapted native plants for restoration and revegetation projects.
“Despite the great demand for native plant material for conservation, restoration and wildlife habitat creation, locally adapted plant material is not available,” Edwards said.
As a result, Edwards said, many restoration and conservation projects haven’t been able to proceed.
“To achieve long-term sustainability, plant material used for restoration projects should be adapted to local physical, climatic and biologic conditions,” Edwards said.
The Native Plant Initiative will eventually release the seeds to commercial growers, who in turn can plant fields large enough to sell seed to the public, Edwards said.
Getting to that point has been tricky, though.
Because little is known about some of the plants, growers cannot simply consult a book or a seed pack to determine a plant’s optimal growing conditions or requirements.
“Figuring out what we need to do to get (the plants) to do what we want — that’s the trick,” Daugereaux said.
Some of the plants produce seeds that become available individually, which can make harvesting the seeds on a large-scale nearly impossible, Primeaux said.
Germination rates can also vary wildly, and some of the grasses can take up to three years before they begin to grow, Daugereaux said.
Then there’s the issue of funding, or the lack of it.
“The first five years of this program were almost completely unfunded,” Daugereaux said.
Without dedicated funding, Edwards said, you have to rely on part-time and volunteer staff.
He credited the dedicated employees and volunteers with keeping the effort alive.
Over the years, the Native Plant Initiative has had to rely on reimbursable agreements, grants and earmarks, he said.
A dedicated stream of funds would mean the project would be able to advance at a much faster rate, Edwards said.
Both Daugereaux and Primeaux only work part time on the initiative. Daugereaux also receives part-time help from a graduate student.
Lately, the lack of help has literally left the greenhouse in the weeds: The staff is struggling to fight an aquatic weed that arrived with a fish research project.
The weed, which Daugereuax said he couldn’t recall its name, looks and acts like a succulent and has covered most of the containers in one of the greenhouses.
“It’s taken over,” Primeaux said, adding that the weed has not yet killed anything.
Fortunately, the weed has a limited lifespan and it cannot survive in the fields after the plants are transplanted, Primeaux said.
“This is our biggest enemy in the greenhouse,” Daugereaux said.
As for the Native Plant Initiative, Daugereaux said he remains optimistic.
“LNPI has found a way to thrive through the worst,” Daugereaux said. “So, I don’t feel by any means that LNPI is going to go away.”