Native American tribes have been cultivating peaches [Prunus persica (L.) Batsch] since their introduction to North America in the 1600s. In the American Southwest, peach orchards derived from centuries of seed selections have been maintained in relative isolation from commercial cultivars. These Native American peach selections may be better adapted to the arid climate of the Intermountain West. We compared physiological robustness during water stress of seedling peaches from a 60-year-old orchard maintained by Navajo farmers in southwestern Utah to the commercial peach rootstock Lovell. Six replicate trees of each rootstock were subjected to eight cycles of controlled drought on an automated lysimeter system, which monitored transpiration rate continuously. Trees were selected for uniform size and transpiration rate at the start of the study. During the drought cycles, individual trees were watered when their transpiration rate decreased to less than 250 g of water per day, ≈20% of their well-watered daily transpiration rate. After the first cycle of drought, the transpiration rate of the Navajo trees was greater than the Lovell trees, so they depleted their root-zone water more rapidly and experienced greater water stress. Despite greater stress, the Navajo selection had greater leaf area and dry weight at harvest. Because the root system was confined, these results indicate that the Navajo selection may have greater resilience when experiencing drought, independent of the depth and distribution of the root system. However, this study was not able to determine whether physiological resilience during drought was a result of canopy or root characteristics. Field studies are needed to determine whether root distribution or depth also contribute to drought tolerance in the Navajo selection.
Funding for this project was made possible by a U.S. Department of Agriculture–National Institute of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crop Block Grant administered by the Utah Department of Agriculture, the Utah Water Initiative grant program, and by the Utah Agriculture Experiment Station, Utah State University, journal paper no. 9148.
We thank the Tsinajinnie family for their donation of seed and continued support. We also thank the following people for their extensive technical support and intellectual contributions: Alec Hay, James Frisby, Lance Stott, Teryl Roper, and Dan Drost.
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