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Released July 21, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS PROJECT HELPS RESTORE ENVIRONMENTAL 'KIDNEYS'

OCEAN SPRINGS - Dr. Cynthia Moncreiff, a marine botanist with The University of Southern Mississippi, is dealing with the kidneys of the coast, but her operating room is in a greenhouse, not a hospital.

The assistant professor of coastal sciences is raising two species of saltmarsh plants - black needlerush and smooth cordgrass - at the university's Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs for use in small-scale marsh restoration projects.

"Our marshes are the 'kidneys' of the gulf coast," Moncreiff said. "These two plants are critical components of coastal marshes. They help the marshes filter nutrients and wastes out of the water and help keep our coastal bayous and the Mississippi Sound cleaner. They also prevent erosion. They protect the shoreline during storm events. They are buffers."

Moncreiff said use of local marsh plants will give restoration projects an edge over efforts that use plants from other environments. Without a local source, Moncreiff said, plants for restoration would be cut out of an existing marsh, possibly damaging the donor marsh, or they might be purchased from commercial growers out of state.

She pointed out that the same species from commercial sources are, in effect, clones of plants that are not from the Mississippi coast. The advantage of the homegrown plants is in maintaining local genetic variability, disease resistance and environmental tolerance.

Moncreiff's project is supported through a grant from the Mississippi Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP), which is administered by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. The marsh plants grown at the lab will go to CIAP projects involving marsh restoration in Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties or to other projects proposing restoration of two acres or less.

To date, Moncreiff and her team have collected seeds from 50 to 100 plants in the Ocean Springs area and are successfully growing about 1,200 black needlerush and 4,000 smooth cordgrass plants from the seeds. She said an important aspect of the project is that rates of germination and growth have been high.

"Seeds are sprouting and growing into lush plants," she said. "The GCRL greenhouse is full of nearly mature plants, ready for use in restoration."

They are doing so well, in fact, that Moncreiff is looking forward to putting up a temporary greenhouse and growing more plants. She has completed another cycle of collecting black needlerush seeds and will collect smooth cordgrass seeds this fall for planting as the other CIAP projects call for more plants.

Moncreiff said she hopes that the GCRL greenhouse will continue as a self-supporting source of native plant material after the funding has ended in December 2004.

"One of the biggest challenges so far has been convincing the rabbits and wood rats not to eat our plants," she said. "Apparently tender marsh plants are very tasty."

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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM

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