CONTACT: Steven Gulden, 505-852-4241, sguldan
ALCALDE – Lavender is a promising high-value alternative crop for small-scale growers in the arid West and Southwest, especially if agricultural researchers can find a way to lessen the number one problem for the growers – root disease.
A study at New Mexico State University’s Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde may have found several lavender varieties that have a natural resistance against root disease.
Charles Martin, retired NMSU agricultural specialist and former alternative crops researcher at Alcalde, began research on lavender in 2003 while a faculty member of the university.
Lavender produces a high-value essential oil that can contribute to the overall profitability of small-scale farming situations.
During the 2003 variety trial Martin determined that both of the two main commercial species of lavender, English, or true lavender (Lavandula augustifola) and lavandin (Lavandula x intermedia) have potential to do well in New Mexico.
“Of the first varieties investigated, Grosso and Super, both lavandin varieties, performed best in hardiness and yield,” Martin said. “However, for growers wanting to enter the high-end commercial lavender oil market, English lavender oil is more valuable than lavandin oil. So we conducted further field trials focusing on English lavender varieties for suitability to northern New Mexico environmental conditions and traditional farming practices.”
In 2008 Martin began a second round of investigation to see which lavender varieties were least susceptible to root disease by being more tolerant to the conditions under which small-scale growers water their crops.
Ordinarily conventional lavender growers avoid root disease by converting to drip irrigation, which has high up-front costs and requires more maintenance. Additionally, farmers who rely upon acequias for irrigation would need to invest in expensive filtration equipment.
“Because traditional small-scale agriculture in our state relies on acequia-fed furrow or flood irrigation, overwatering or free-standing water found in this form of irrigation creates conditions that promote Phytophthora and Rhizoctonia root disease,” he said. “This became one of the critical factors preventing small-scale farmers from adopting this crop.”
Martin planted more than 2,000 individual plants of 31 different varieties to see which ones would be most adapted.
“I obtained seed from all over the world – the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, France, Canada, as well as places in the United States,” Martin said.
After planting the trial, a family health situation caused Martin to retire and return to his native Illinois to care for his mother. Science center superintendent Steven Guldan allowed the trial to continue in Martin’s absence, with fruit specialist Dr. Shengrui Yao and research specialist Rob Heyduck assuming responsibility for the lavender field.
“When I started the trial I didn’t expect it to last more than three years,” Martin said. “As it turned out, it lasted eight years, which fortuitously resulted in exposing the plants to a wider range of seasonal conditions.”
Lavender is a perennial plant that can survive for up to 10 years.
“This study proved to be a more realistic situation that actual farmers would face over the life of a lavender stand,” Martin said. “A typical three-year study would not have had the conditions or the degree of adversity that these varieties experienced.”
Over the past eight years, the plants experienced limited watering, dry winters, weed pressure and two years of grasshopper infestation. Twenty-two of the 31 varieties – 131 plants – survived.
“The result has been the natural selection of especially resilient individual plants. The survivors are truly special,” Martin said. “They are more likely to have disease resistance, drought tolerance, or other physiological traits that have enabled the plants to live so long under these less-than-ideal conditions.”
To determine what those traits are, Martin said the research needs to be taken to the next stage.
“These varieties could become foundation stock and seed for future breeding purposes, developed with New Mexico’s small-scale traditional farmer in mind,” he said. “Obtaining funds for further research and development is critical at this point in time because the survivors in the field are reaching the end of their natural life expectancy.
“Taking cuttings for clonal propagation to ensure the continuation of the plants, tissue culture to obtain virus-free research material and distribution of germplasm to other experiment stations in New Mexico for testing under other environmental conditions are all preliminary steps to take in reaching the ultimate goal of getting these valuable cultivars into the hands of traditional farmers.”