Russell Plowman leads a group focused on sustainable landscapes for the area’s semi-arid climate.
Every spring at Texas Tech University, the flower beds, as well as other areas all over campus, get spruced up with new and colorful flowers. It's a sign that warmer weather is on the way and the campus will once again display its beauty to visitors, alumni, students, faculty and staff over the next few months.
But did you ever wonder about the process for which some flowers or plants are chosen? Well, a field of study in the Department of Plant and Soil Science, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, might have played a part in that.
Ornamental horticulture is the study of growing, arranging and tending plants for decorative and aesthetic use. Led by instructor Russ Plowman, students research and experiment with different plant breeds to intensify their beauty and study and improve their tolerance to the semi-arid climate on the South Plains.
"You have to have plants that are pretty tough," Plowman said. "There are different kinds of plants – drought tolerant, non-drought tolerant, xerophytic plants. A lot of people have heard of xeriscape, but it doesn't mean that it's all cactus and things like that. It's just plants that use water really well, and what you find is the plants that are native to your area, they are going to use water in a way that your area gets through natural rainfall."
Through ornamental horticulture, Plowman and his students explore methods for designing plant and flower displays that can be used in places like golf courses, therapy, greenhouses and public and private businesses. But ornamental horticulture also is used to improve the capacity of ornamental plants for the production of oils.
Not only are ornamental plants attractive, they can improve the quality of life. They have been shown to improve air quality, cut down on the time people spend in hospitals and improve employee attendance. Plowman said ornamental horticulture also can help cool a house through the use of trees, vegetation, grasses and flowers.
"Of course, all plants provide oxygen, so that's part of it," Plowman said. "But, really, the whole goal of ornamental horticulture is growing plants for their interest and their beauty."
The focus of Plowman and his students is on sustainable landscape and the role of ornamental horticulture. Their goal is to develop vegetation that is economical to grow and maintain and that requires a minimum amount of water, fertilizer and pest control chemicals while maximizing the benefits of ornamental plants and minimizing their environmental impact.
For that purpose, Plowman's research focuses on wildflowers, not just in the U.S., but those that are native to West Texas and the South Plains.
"We're looking at improving native wildflower populations to get better standing plants, bigger flowers, a better show and even more drought resistance," Plowman said. "We want to get them a longer life and are trying to make them perennials where they live five to seven years instead of three to five, or one to three. So we're breeding for those purposes, and we're breeding for better color and bigger blooms. And we've had quite a bit of luck."
Plowman researches and experiments mostly with salvias, Indian blankets, Mexican hats and a few other native wildflowers because of their beauty in the landscape. His goal is to get them to bloom more vividly, more frequently and do so on a yearly basis.
He said how plants grow on the South Plains is vastly different than how they grow in even some of the closer regions like the Big Country, Permian Basin and Concho Valley. That leads Plowman and his students to devote time researching certain non-native plants that could be adapted to this climate. Currently, they are looking at plants like persimmons and pomegranates for their sustainability to the area.
So part of the research in ornamental horticulture involves what Plowman called "trialing," where researchers grow certain plants, provide minimum amounts of water, no fertilizer, and grow them throughout the spring and summer to determine how well they will grow in the natural environment.
"The biggest challenge is everybody likes plants from the East Coast or the South," Plowman said. "They like magnolias and dogwoods and azaleas and things like that. But even if we had the water, we don't have the soil, and we don't have the temperature for that, so we shouldn't be trying to grow the East Coast plants here in a semi-arid environment.
"The plants that would live in New Mexico or far West Texas would do really well here, so we're looking to expand our plant populations. We're not only talking about what's here regionally and working with that, but also looking at plants for dry areas and drier communities and maybe bringing those in and seeing how well they do here."
Plant breeding has given the world a plethora of different kinds of plants and flowers. Plowman is interested in taking it back to the beginning.
"One of the things we're looking at is using tissue culture and going back, taking all the plant breeding out and getting the true species," Plowman said, "then interbreeding that and seeing what comes from it. With a lot of the new technologies that are coming on and the way plant breeding is, we can really look for specific things to breed for, like bigger blooms. You look for branching that is consistent and study, and then you look for well-developed root systems. Then, of course, you plan for drought tolerance and hardiness."
So the next time you see a flower in someone's garden that looks unusual or maybe more vibrant, remember research at Texas Tech might have had something to do with it.