Saturday, May 6, 2017

Wildflower Project Brightens State Highways

Brett Rushing
A Mississippi State University researcher is helping turn Mississippi roadsides into eye-catching pollinator habitats and tourist attractions. Dr. Brett Rushing, an assistant Extension and research professor at the MSU Coastal Plain Branch Experiment Station in Newton, supports Wildflower Trails of Mississippi in its effort to fill available and suitable property across the state with colorful, native wildflowers and grasses. Coordinated by Keep Mississippi Beautiful, this project began in 2015.

Rushing, whose focus is on native grasses and conservation crops, provides the knowledge base to get the right species planted and to keep the areas maintained. He studied native wildflower and grass varieties and put together a custom seed blend that performs well in Mississippi’s climate.

“Every year at conventions, I see pictures and presentations of other states’ beautification and pollinator projects,” said Sarah Kountouris, executive director of Keep Mississippi Beautiful. “Many states, like Texas, have had wildflower projects for years, and I thought that it would be great to get something going for Mississippi.”

For help with the logistics of choosing flower varieties, planting sites and maintaining established plots, Kountouris recruited the MSU Extension Service, Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Mississippi Department of Transportation, Mississippi Association of Conservation Districts, Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Garden Clubs of Mississippi, and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“In Mississippi, we have a knowledge gap on wildflowers,” Rushing said. “Wildflowers are a whole different suite of plants. They can’t compete with traditional sod grasses and are very sensitive to certain herbicides. For Mississippi to have a successful wildflower program, we need to learn what planting methods and management practices work best.”

To find these answers, Rushing planted test plots at the Coastal
Plain station in April 2016 using three different planting methods. On one plot, he broadcast seed on top of a prepared seedbed where preexisting vegetation was controlled with herbicides. On another, he planted seed with a no-till drill into a stale seedbed. On the third, he broadcast seed onto a prepared seedbed where preexisting vegetation was not sprayed. He is analyzing the effectiveness of different herbicide rates, active ingredients and application timing.

“On the test plots and on the areas planted around the state, we’re looking at what works and what doesn’t,” Rushing said. “For example, we want to determine if planting seed with a no-till drill results in a higher rate of establishment success as compared to broadcasting seed on top of the ground.”

Extension Publication 3000, “Wildflower Trails of Mississippi,” details the project and can help state, county and municipal agencies maintain the planted sites across the state. The general public can use the information to successfully plant and maintain wildflowers in their yards and communities.

Rushing said he wants to cultivate Mississippi-bred wildflower seeds through the project.

“A majority of the species we are planting come from outside the state,” he said. “Ultimately, we would like to develop our own sources of germplasm that are adapted to Mississippi’s climate.”

Wildflower Trails of Mississippi planted several sites across the state in 2016 and is preparing many more sites for planting in 2017. Participating cities include Hattiesburg, Winona, Tupelo, Ridgeland, Cleveland, Raymond, Magee, Mendenhall, Clinton, Crystal Springs and Madison.

“I’ve been overwhelmed with the response from cities and communities across the state,” Kountouris said. “A lot of people are interested in this project, and I am so happy that people want something like this here. We wouldn’t be where we are with this project without our partners. We are so appreciative of their help.”

Kountouris said she hopes the ongoing project will boost tourism and Mississippians’ pride in their state.

“The Texas bluebonnets draw a huge ecotourism crowd, ranking third among the reasons people visit Texas,” she said. “In time, with the right planning and management, I think Mississippi could experience the same kind of benefit. I also hope that people will not throw litter out in these or other areas.”

For more information on Wildflower Trails of Mississippi, visit the project website at http://www.mswildflowers.org.