By Barbara Kessler

Golf courses, those oases of green that require lots of water and pesticides, may be able to improve their environmental profile by planting flowers and natural grasses. Massachusetts researchers recently found that several plants, such as the blug flag iris, can filter the pesticides used to keep that golf turf perennially green and weed-free.

When the plants are used on the perimeter of the golf course, they help protect waterways from the impact of pesticides and herbicides. In other words, they de-toxify the run-off. And with some 16,000 golf courses in the United States that’s a lot of potential environmental cleansing.

The researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst call these plants – which have large root systems that hold pesticides in place while microorganisms break them down — “living filters.”

“Studies from golf greens have shown that 5 percent to 10 percent of the total pesticides applied are lost in runoff. In worst case conditions, this figure can be as high as 30 percent,” says John Clark, a professor of veterinary and animal science and a principal investigator in the study.

Runoff is a serious problem, causing damage to aquatic life in streams and potentially to humans.

Some of the plants studied, like the blue flag iris, reduced certain pesticides in the ground by more than 90 percent. Other plants found to work as filters included gama grass and other prairie grasses. The researchers propose that these plants be planted in “vegetative filter strips” to capture pesticides before they run off into the wider environment. They plan real world tests in Massachusetts this summer at the UMass Turfgrass Research facility in South Deerfield, Mass where they’ve planted 12 vegetative filter strips with different combinations of plants.

A bonus for golf courses: The flowering plants and grasses beautify the grounds, without obstructing views with trees, which are also capable of pesticide absorption, but not always helpful to long drives.

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