200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 190: “Bulrush to the Rescue! ”

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Ernie Schuyler and a herbarium sheet containing a speciment of the delta bulrush
Dr. Alfred “Ernie” Schuyler holding a herbarium sheet of the delta bulrush from the Academy’s Botany Collection.

Bulrush to the Rescue!

In 1970, Dr. Alfred “Ernie” Schuyler, the Academy’s curator emeritus of botany, first described and named Scirpus deltarum (now known as Schoenoplectus deltarum), or delta bulrush, in the Mississippi Delta marshlands. The delta bulrush, a member of the sedge family, has properties that could help clean marshes of oils and reduce the impact of Gulf oil spills on Mississippi Delta ecosystems.

A close relative of the delta bulrush, the common three-square is known to transmit oxygen to underwater microorganisms capable of decomposing oil. It is likely that the delta bulrush has the same detoxification properties as related bulrushes that are used to purify water in sewage lagoons. They have “air cavities in the stems that transport oxygen to underwater portions of the plants, making the oxygen available to microbes capable of decomposing pollutants in the sewage,” explains Schuyler. This could potentially make the plants instrumental in decomposing some of the chemicals in spilled oil and in reducing the oil’s impact on other threatened marsh plants.

The delta bulrush covers thousands of acres on the outer portion of the Mississippi Delta where it is a pioneer species on mud washed into the Gulf of Mexico. Its underground stems form a “meshwork” that is the foundation for further marsh formation. The large stands of the delta bulrush are the first plants that spilled oil washed into the Delta from the Gulf would encounter. A “green wall” of emergent bulrush stems would act as an “oil-buffer” for the rest of the wetlands. Schuyler also notes that “bulrushes are more tolerant of oil than many other marsh plants,” which “suggests that the delta bulrush will persist regardless of the oil and continue to stabilize the marshes in the delta.”

Although Schuyler hopes that we don’t get to find out how much oil is too much for the delta bulrush, the plant deserves further study to determine its full oil decomposition properties and effectiveness. While oil spill prevention is the ultimate goal, this plant could play a key role in reducing the impacts of oil spills on wetland organisms. 

Find out more about the Botany Department’s research.

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