AUBURN, Ala. — Call it a trial run, but an Auburn University research and outreach project is moving from the laboratory into the mainstream market this month as, for the first time ever in the U.S., gardeners in parts of the country will have the opportunity to buy spectacular lotuses, already in bloom.
Lotuses—ancient aquatic perennial plants that are native to China—have been used for centuries throughout the world as food, as medicine and as ornamentals. Since 2001, AU horticulture professor Ken Tilt and a team of scientists from Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi and China have been exploring the possibility of growing lotus in the Southeast, particularly in Alabama’s Black Belt region as a potential double-cropping option for west Alabama fish farmers.
“The environmental conditions to grow lotus are the same as those to produce fish in ponds,” Tilt said. “Lotus production in association with aquaculture farms has the potential to increase the economic revenue from fish ponds, diversify farm production and make fish farm operation more economically sustainable.”
In this springtime debut, the early-flowering lotuses will be in short supply—just 4,500 of them, to be sold at garden centers in select regions of the country.
But every one of those 4,500 will have been produced—gently nudged into bloom weeks ahead of their natural time—by Bill Bancroft and crew at Ten Mile Creek Nursery in Hartford, Ala., with Tilt standing in the wings.
Bancroft, an AU horticulture alumnus who worked on the then-new lotus project his final year at Auburn, received crate loads of dormant lotus tubers from China in early February and immediately planted them in the four greenhouses he built specifically for the lotus venture. Using data from almost a decade of Auburn research into lotus as an alternative crop for Alabama farmers, Bancroft is manipulating greenhouse temperatures and lighting conditions to simulate the long days of summer and con the plants into blooming early.
“From mid-March through April is the frenzied time when garden-center shoppers want to take home flowering plants, but in the past, the only way they’ve ever been able to purchase lotus then has been in tuber form, to take home and plant,” Tilt said. “This will mark the first ‘forced’ lotus for spring garden sales in the mass markets in the U.S.”
Bancroft won’t be selling any of these plants directly to the public. All will be marketed and distributed by Moerings-USA, a Stevensburg, Va.-based wholesale nursery operation that specializes in sales and marketing of aquatic plants.
“We’re excited to be adding lotus to our list of products available for retail outlets during their peak sales seasons,” Moerings-USA owner and president Oscar Warmerdam said.
Bancroft shipped the first round of Alabama-grown lotuses to Moerings this week, and they’ll be hitting retail outlets within days. Apparently, all are destined for markets in northern states, Tilt said.
“At least in this first year, they won’t come as far south as Alabama,” Tilt said.
Warmerdam learned of the Alabama lotus work via a presentation that AU lotus team member and horticulture doctoral candidate Warner Orozco-Obando gave at a conference in Thailand last year and immediately began working with the AU lotus team to get the plants to the public.
“We approached Ten Mile Creek Nursery about producing the lotuses because Bancroft was familiar with the lotus research and because the Bancrofts also are catfish and tilapia producers, which will give us the opportunity to evaluate the feasibility of double-cropping,” Tilt said.
The lotus greenhouses at Ten Mile Creek Nursery are equipped with sensors and monitors to record data that the Auburn scientists will use to identify the best cultivars for Alabama’s growing conditions and to increase production efficiency. Bancroft has also agreed to keep detailed time and financial records so that agricultural economists at AU can fully analyze the economics of lotus production.
Tilt and others launched the AU lotus study after a visit to China’s chief research center for lotus production convinced them that the ancient aquatic perennial, deemed by some religions to be “God’s favorite flower,” might have growing potential in Alabama. In research based at Auburn and at AAES research and extension centers in Cullman and Mobile, Tilt and his team have evaluated more than 100 small “teacup” lotus cultivars and several large cultivars for potential production in Alabama. Focusing on the top performers in that research—and on the cultivars Alabama’s Master Gardeners have voted “best of the best” to market—the team has developed best management and production practices for lotus.
On the outreach front, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System has been working to educate the gardening public about the care and use of lotuses, and plants from the AU lotus collection will be on display from late May through September at the Mobile, Huntsville and Birmingham botanical gardens and in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.
While the researchers and the marketers wait to gauge consumer response to this first offering of Alabama lotuses, they continue to investigate other uses for the plants. Given that all parts of the lotus, from its seed pods to its roots, are edible and are staple food items in many cultures, some of the AU scientists are attempting to gauge Americans’ willingness to add lotus to their diets. Others are investigating the use of lotuses as biofilters for pesticides and fish waste in wetland areas and their potential as a source of biomass for energy production—all of which will expand the market for Alabama lotuses.
In addition to Tilt and Orozco-Obando, members of the AU lotus team include Jeff Sibley, Floyd Woods, Wheeler Foshee and Fenny Dane, all horticulture faculty; horticulture Ph.D. student Daike Tian; AAES research and extension center directors Arnold Caylor in Cullman and John Olive in Mobile; ag economist Deaque Fields; and, from the AU fisheries and allied aquacultures faculty, Jesse Chappell and David Cline. International cooperative partners in addition to China are India, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
The International Society of Water Gardens is tentatively scheduled to bring its meeting to Auburn University in 2009 to view the lotus research at Auburn and the botanical gardens and natural habitats in Alabama.
For immediate release
OFFICE OF AG COMMUNICATIONS & MARKETING
Auburn University College of Agriculture
Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station
3 COMER HALL, AUBURN UNIVERSITY
AUBURN, AL 36849
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Contact: Jamie Creamer, 334-844-2783 or firstname.lastname@example.org