Native and other low-maintenance plantings along highways could help Utahns find alternatives to thirsty landscape plants, says says Larry Rupp, a horticulturist with the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station at Utah State University.

A lack of research is hampering the increased use of native and other plants that can conserve water and reduce maintenance costs, Rupp said."The low-maintenance plantings currently planned for freeways in Utah offer ideal sites to study these plants, and at a fraction of the amount spent to plant and maintain these areas."

Rupp proposes that a portion of the federal funds for highway revegetation be used for research to monitor success of the plantings.

Although many low-maintenance plants are suited to Utah's climate, little is known about their establishment and maintenance requirements.

Rupp said plants that have been studied and are popular in many warm desert regions such as southern California and Las Vegas aren't suited to this state's cold desert climate.

The lack of funding for this type of horticultural research is a major reason he is eager to use the roadside as a laboratory to spur growth in what could be a huge market for low-maintenance landscape plants.

"It's difficult to introduce a new plant," Rupp says. "Nurseries tend to stock plants that perform well and that they can sell, while customers tend to buy plants they are familiar with and see in the nursery."

Roadside plantings will let nursery-men evaluate the performance of low-maintenance plants and familiarize customers with new plants, he said.

In many other Western states, water shortages have spurred interest in native and other plants with lower water and maintenance requirements. Water districts in several other states often fund research about water efficient landscapes.

Despite Utah's frequent brushes with drought, low-maintenance plantings have not increased dramatically. Rupp attributes this to a lack of available plants and information about establishing and maintaining these plants rather than a lack of interest.

For example, the interior of one highway cloverleaf interchange has a complete range of exposures, from north slope to south slope, that would make it possible to evaluate the effect of exposure on plants.