Over the last several years, there has been increasing interest in amending the soil using cover crops, especially in desert agriculture. One cover crop of interest in the desert Coachella Valley of California is cowpea [Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.]. Cowpea is particularly useful in that as an excellent cover crop, fixing abundant amounts of nitrogen which can reduce fertilizer costs. However, soil salinity problems are of increasing concern in the Coachella Valley of California where the Colorado River water is a major source of irrigation water. Unfortunately, little information is available on the response of cowpea growth to salt stress. Thus, we investigated the growth response of 12 major cowpea cultivars (`CB5', `CB27', `CB46', `IT89KD-288', `IT93K-503-1', `Iron Clay', `Speckled Purple Hall', `UCR 134', `UCR 671', `UCR 730', `8517', and `7964') to increasing salinity levels. The experiment was set up as a standard Split Plot design. Seven salinity levels ranging from 2.6 to 20.1 dS·m–1 were constructed, based on Colorado River water salt composition, to have NaCl, CaCl2 and MgSO4 as the salinization salts. The osmotic potential ranged from –0.075 to –0.82 MPa. Salt stress began 7 days after planting by adding the salts into irrigating nutrient solution and ended after 5 consecutive days. The plants were harvested during flowering period for biomass measurement (53 days after planting). Data analysis using SAS analysis of variance indicated that the salinity in the range between 2.6 and 20.1 dS·m–1 significantly reduced leaf area, leaf dry weight, stem dry weight and root dry weight (P ≤ 0.05). We applied the data to a salt-tolerance model, log(Y) = a1 + a2X + a3X2, where Y represents biomass, a1, a2 and a3 are empirical constants, and X represents salinity, and found that the model accounted for 99%, 97%, 96%, 99%, and 96% of salt effect for cowpea shoot, leaf area, leaf dry weight, stem dry weight and root dry weight, respectively. We also found significant differences (P ≤ 0.05) of each biomass parameter among the 12 cultivars and obtained different sets of the empirical constants to quantitatively describe the response of each biomass parameter to salinity for individual cowpea cultivars. Since a significant salt × cultivar interaction effect (P ≤ 0.05) was found on leaf area and leaf dry weight, we concluded that salt tolerance differences exist among the tested cultivars.
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