Salt is a favorite seasoning that is found on many dining tables. Salt in the soil, however, is a death sentence for most land plants — the salt is toxic to their cells and inhibits them from extracting water from the soil.
Luckily, there are plants that thrive in salty soil. These plants, which are called halophytes, are found in saline environments throughout the world and are uniquely equipped to handle high concentrations of salt. In addition, halophytic plants can be cultivated to grow in areas where irrigation practices have caused a build-up of salt in the soil.
On Thursday, July 17, at 7:00 p.m., at the University of Delaware’s College of Marine Studies (CMS) in Lewes, Jack Gallagher, CMS professor of marine biology–biochemistry, will discuss the uses of these plants in a talk titled “Salt-Marsh Plants Serving Society.” Gallagher’s presentation is part of the Ocean Currents Lecture Series, which is held monthly at the Lewes campus through September.
In his presentation, Gallagher will briefly describe the past, present, and future uses of salt-marsh plants. Historically, these plants have been gathered not only for food and medicinal purposes, but also for more aesthetic reasons such as basket weaving and candle-making.
“In addition to these uses, there is also the natural role that these plants play in our environment,” says Gallagher. “Salt-marsh plants provide food and shelter for birds and estuarine animals that live in intertidal zones. The plants also act to protect coastal communities from storms and floods.”
In today’s world, Phragmites, or common reed, is being planted at wastewater treatment facilities as a way to dry sludge. Other salt-marsh plants are being used to restore damaged wetlands to their natural state. Marsh plants have been identified and are being developed for forage, grains, vegetables, firewood, and landscaping.
Gallagher also will describe how CMS scientists are working to develop salt-marsh plants that can be used to cultivate saline land around the world. In northeastern Thailand, for example, a marsh grass called Sporobolus variety Dixie has been planted in selected areas, and the land can now be used for forage and hay.
“The future will bring new uses for salt-marsh plants,” predicts Gallagher. “Currently, we are trying to determine how these plants can tolerate salt in their diet. This will help give us an understanding of how these plants have evolved and provide us with clues on how to develop salt-tolerant crops.”
In closing, Gallagher will distribute a pasta recipe that includes marsh plants, showing that some marsh vegetation can be tasty as well as useful.
A member of UD’s faculty since 1980, Gallagher is the co-director of the Halophyte Biotechnology Center at CMS. He earned his doctorate in biology in 1971 from UD as well as a master’s and bachelor’s degree in agronomy in 1959 and 1957, respectively.
The lecture will begin at 7:00 p.m. in Room 104, Cannon Laboratory, at the Hugh R. Sharp Campus, 700 Pilottown Road, Lewes. The hour-long talk will be followed by light refreshments.
While the lecture is free and open to the public, seating is limited and reservations are required. To reserve your seat, please contact the college at (302) 645-4279.