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NMSU leads Southwest in lavender research

ALCALDE, N.M. - As New Mexico is becoming known internationally for its production of quality lavender oil, New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde has stepped up its research in variety trials of this specialty crop.

Val Archuleta, left, field technician at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center in Alcalde, and Charles Martin, NMSU agricultural specialist and principle herb researcher at Alcalde, plant lavender for this year's phase of an ongoing variety trial. Through the seven years of variety trails, Martin has focused on finding the right lavender varieties to thrive in New Mexico's extreme growing conditions of cold winters and the temperature extremes of springtime, as well as the high wind. (NMSU Photo by Jane Moorman)

"There are outstanding researchers studying this valuable crop in other areas of the country, but we needed research specifically tailored to the growing conditions of this area. To my knowledge, we are the only research center in the Southwest developing this crop. We want to help the growers solve their problem of matching the right varieties to our growing conditions so they can expand the lavender industry in New Mexico," said Charles Martin, NMSU agricultural specialist and principle herb researcher at Alcalde.

Lavender is an increasingly popular specialty crop for New Mexico and other parts of the Southwest because of its suitability for cultivation in alkaline, sandy and low-fertility soils; its relative heat and drought tolerance; and its preference for arid conditions with low humidity.

There are two main species of lavender that are cold-tolerant: English, or true lavender, (Lavandaula augustifola) and lavadin (Lavandula x intermedia), which is a hybrid that does not produce seeds.

"In our first variety trial, which was a comparison of six different varieties of both English lavender and lavandin, we confirmed that these varieties, all previously shown to grow well elsewhere in the United States, also have potential to do well in New Mexico. Of the first varieties investigated, Grossa and Super, both lavandins, performed the best in hardiness and yield," Martin said.

For growers wanting to enter the high-end commercial lavender sales, English lavender oil is more valuable than lavandin oil. So Martin is conducting further trials focusing exclusively on English lavender varieties.

"From a small-scale grower's stand point, they stand to make more on a per-acre basis on English lavender then they do from the lavandin," he said. "Because our mission here at the Alcalde experimental station is to help small-scale farmers improve their profitability per acre, I decided to investigate further which English lavender varieties work well for northern New Mexico growers."

Martin's work will help find and develop English lavender varieties that will produce the traits the commercial lavender industry is seeking and be able to thrive in New Mexico's extreme growing conditions of cold winters and the extreme temperatures of springtime, as well as the high wind.

"Some commercial growers in New Mexico reported winter dieback during the last few seasons. A couple of seasons ago it was especially severe," Martin said. "So in our selection process, we want to minimize or eliminate those losses."

For the new variety trial, Martin collected many different kinds of lavender from all over the world, as far away as Canada, France and the Netherlands, as well as from researchers here in the United States.

"As it turns out, some of the English lavender varieties that we got from right here in the U.S. are the best performers," he said. "We have such extreme growing conditions here in northern New Mexico that the plants that are developed elsewhere in the world simply are not adapted for these kinds of conditions," Martin said.

For example, Martin said they found that the Maillette variety, which is one of the most popular English lavender varieties in France, doesn't survive as well in the climate of northern New Mexico.

"Maillette had the highest mortality rate of all varieties planted during the first season," he said, "while the varieties Buena Vista, Graves, Munstead and Royal Velvet, which were suggested by American growers, had the highest survival rates."

Entering the second year of trials, Martin said that this year's cooler spring and higher winter moisture levels will allow him to compare this year's planting with the survivors of last year's planting, which was in hot, dry conditions.

As the trials evolve, Martin is using intensive line selection to find hearty varieties for northern New Mexico growers.

"We're letting the plants tell us which is best for this region by how the different varieties grow during the trials," he said. "These are common practices that anyone can follow. A grower can apply these methods to find or develop their own particular lavender variety adapted to their particular growing conditions. This method takes advantage of the evolutionary process of natural selection. By using nature to weed out the weaker or less robust plants, we end up with varieties that are vigorous, sturdier and better adapted to a given environment."

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