Sarah Emery is a plant ecologist with 16 years of experience researching plant-fungus interactions in grasslands, forests, and agricultural systems. As a professor in the Biology Dept. at the University of Louisville (KY), she had a goal of getting more students engaged with research on plants. Inspired by her own rapidly growing house plant collection and the popularity of house plants among the current generation of students, she is now applying her academic background in ecology to study the biofertilizer effects of beneficial soil fungi for indoor foliage plants.
Eighty percent of land plants form beneficial associations with soil fungi called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF), and there are many commercial products currently on the market that use AMF as biofertilizers. However, very little is known about the potential for AMF to benefit foliage plants which are valued for vegetative growth rather than flower or fruit production. A grant from NHF is funding her preliminary experiments examining whether AMF can improve growth and foliage color of two popular foliage plant taxa, Aglaonema spp. and Sedum spp. These taxa represent plants with a wide range of growth habits and preferred growing conditions, which should make research findings generalizable to other taxa as well. This research will be one of the first academic studies to evaluate the biofertilizer effects of AMF on foliage plants.
Inoculating foliage plants with beneficial fungi may contribute to more sustainable management practices, help reduce plant production and maintenance costs, and improve plant owner experience. Depending on the outcome of her initial experiments, future research may focus on the potential role of AMF as bioprotectors for foliage plants, and whether AMF can increase plant tolerance to stresses such as drought, insect pests, or soil pathogens. Multiple undergraduate students will be involved with this project, giving them unique opportunities to participate in horticulture research. Sarah is collaborating with local industry practitioners in Louisville to apply results of her work to interior plantscapes.