Saltmarsh mallow could help battle against sea water

Staff Reporter

NASSAWADOX, Va. (Sept. 30, 2014) — The marshy grassland where Linda Blum knelt in several inches of water earlier this month, cradling the pink bloom of a Virginia saltmarsh mallow, used to be a farm that produced for several hundred years everything from castor oil to corn, which it shipped from a creek-side wharf up the coast to New York and New England.
Now it’s saturated with saltwater. Rotting trees and puddles as large as ponds dot the landscape. It’s a nature preserve.
It’s not a unique fate for farms in this area of Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
Neighboring Accomack County is reportedly losing 50 acres of farmland a year to encroaching wetlands due to a variety of factors including sea level rise, storm surges, groundwater removal and geological issues.
A growing body of climate change study also says the area can expect the water to rise a meter or more within a century.
Blum, a professor at the University of Virginia, is one of a small number of researchers working to ease that transition by studying, cultivating and promoting saltmarsh mallow, native to coastal areas from Texas to New York.
Blum spends several days a month away from campus in Charlottesville researching the salt- and drought-resistant plant.
If it was turned into a crop, she said, it could keep out invasive species, slow the speed of wetland creep on coastal farms and revive farmland too soggy for more traditional crops like corn and beans.
And that’s just the beginning.
“This is real hotspot for sea level rise” on the East Coast, Blum said. “Here’s something that we as people can do. We can protect the environment and provide a sustainable economic benefit.”
While Blum considers the plant from an environmental sciences perspective, Jack Gallagher, a University of Delaware professor, is looking to eventually ready the crop for the marketplace.
Studies have suggested up to 11 percent of Delaware could be inundated with saltwater within a century.
In a recent interview, he said he just harvested 2.5 acres of mallow and was looking forward to planting up to 10. How easily will it get to the marketplace?
“Not easily,” Gallagher said. “I think one of the issues is the scale of the commercial operations versus the scale we’re able to demonstrate at this point.”
But there are plenty of avenues to get it there. It can be sown and harvested with traditional farm equipment. The seed, which is 18 to 20 percent oil, could be turned into fuel or other bio-based products. Its residual seed meal is about 30 percent protein and could be turned into animal feed. Its stem products are highly absorbent, perfect as a kitty litter, animal bedding (for chickens, ideally) or hydro-mulch to control erosion. It’s a perennial with deep roots that can store carbon, making it a potential producer of carbon credits.
But Gallagher said the issue now, aside from continuing to cultivate the plant and study it, is that no market has been created, and he’d like to start paying growers to plant it. They’re still studying the plant’s grain yield, its pests and potential diseases, among other issues.
“If you don’t have supply then the producer doesn’t have the interest you’d like, and if you don’t have a buyer, the producer asks, ‘Why should we grow it?’” he said.
Back in Virginia, Blum said salt water isn’t just washing onto farms during storm surges. The groundwater is also becoming inundated, which can create an opening for invasive plant species such as phragmites australis, which can destroy other wetland plants.
“The saltmarsh mallow is very competitive with that plant,” she said. “There’s so much you can do with it.”
Even if growers are uninterested in harvesting the mallow, Blum said, it can be used to hold soggy soils and keep adjacent farmland from collapsing into wetland. It’s also a strong buffer between estuaries and farmland that keep nutrients from shifting between the two.
Over time, the plant can also build soil elevation.
At best, Gallagher said the plant could serve as a good nurse crop for growers in areas vulnerable to sea level rise.
“It’s not corn or soybeans, and I would never suggest it would be,” he said. “Where people are getting more flooding with saltwater or freshwater, it enables one to keep those field areas productive.”