by Janet I. Rodekohr
The journey from Africa was arduous. Life in the New World was harder still. But the seed was strong and its progeny took root.
Hundreds of years later, modern generations of seashore paspalum, a native African grass, now stand ready to take their place among the Bermudas, Zoyzias and fescues in the finest of American lawns, athletic fields and golf courses.
But the story of paspalum is more than a tale of one plant's endurance. Like that of Georgia's $1.6 billion turf grass industry itself, the story turns on the diligence of a dedicated research team, creative scientific interpretation and in some cases, just plain old good fortune.
Such was the case on that fateful day when scientist Ronny Duncan wheeled his car into the parking lot of historic Fort Pulaski near Savannah.
Duncan, a UGA turf grass breeder based in Griffin, Ga., had been seeking a research niche in grasses, something to differentiate his work from the extensive scientific programs that existed already for Bermuda, Zoysia, fescue and buffalo grasses. Scanning the minutes of a U.S. Golf Association research meeting, fellow UGA scientist Bob Carrow saw a note requesting research on seashore paspalum. About that time, Tom Burton of Sea Island, Ga., sent Duncan two 4-inch plugs of the grass.
"The plugs were mowed to a quarter of an inch and they were beautiful," Duncan recalled. "They were dark green and fine- textured."
Duncan secured a three-year grant from the golf course association in 1993 - the first of grants from many sources - to support research on seashore paspalum. The trick would be to find a paspalum that would thrive in the Southeast.
Duncan dug through university library archives for information on paspalum. He found references to it all over the world, from Australia to Israel, but there seemed to be no pattern to its migration. This ancient grass grew on Sea Island but not on the Gulf Coast. If it arrived with early explorers, why wasn't it anywhere around St. Augustine, Fla.? It existed on Caribbean islands, but not in New Orleans.
Duncan theorized that the native African grass had been used as bedding in slave ships. But to prove that theory, he had to find descendants of the grass on American shores where slave ships had docked.
So it was then that Duncan arrived at Fort Pulaski in search of elusive sprigs of the hardy sea grass. He eagerly explained his mission to the park ranger - only to learn that a new landscape design had just been implemented at the park. Duncan swallowed hard.
He trudged from the fort into the surrounding marsh. In minutes, he smiled, relieved. "It was there, all through the marsh," he said. "Then I knew I was on the right track."
Similar research in South Carolina paid equal dividends.
"In Charleston, I asked where they off-loaded the slaves and they referred me to Sullivan's Island. In 20 minutes, I found the grass while I was just walking on the beach," he said. "In Savannah, they told me the ships came to Fort Pulaski. The grass was all through the marshes. I feel totally confident that's how these fine-textured grasses came to the United States."
Such confidence is important not just for paspalum's past but for its future. Because the grass develops from sprigs rather than seeds, the surest way to find a useful variety is to locate one that prospers in the local climate. Combined with the grass's naturally tough traits, these sprigs offer amazing advantages to the Southeastern turf grass business.
"Paspalum evolved on the coastal sand dunes of South Africa. The only water it got was ocean water covering it in high tide," Duncan said. "It would stay wet for a month, then dry for months. It developed a mechanism for fast rooting. That's how it survived. This grass is a living model of survival of the fittest."
In short, paspalum can survive just about anything: irrigation using sea water, long drought, low light, little fertilizer or other management. It's tough - exactly the quality that managers of golf courses and athletic fields need as they face droughts, water restrictions and environmental concerns over fertilizer and chemical run-off.
"This is an old grass whose time has come," Duncan said.
So far, the university has released two new paspalum varieties from Duncan's work. Sea Isle 2000 is designed primarily for golf course greens. Sea Isle I is for fairways, tees and sports turfs. Gil Landry, a UGA extension turf specialist, calls the new releases unique.
"Nobody else in the world is dealing with paspalum like this," Landry said. "[These paspalums] tolerate much higher levels of salt [up to ocean water salt levels, as high as 34,000 parts per million] in the soil and water. The paspalum turf grasses are native to coastal areas in similar climates throughout the world."
The practical applications of this ancient grass are immediately apparent.
"In the long term, paspalum will have a significant impact when recycled water is mandated," Duncan said. "It requires a third the amount of fertilizer used for Bermuda and about half the production costs. Between the water issues and the environmental issues, think about the impact of this grass on Atlanta alone."
The impact of their work is never far from the minds of the university's 14-member turf team, which teaches graduate and undergraduate students, conducts research through the UGA Agricultural Experiment Stations and works with the turf industry and consumers through the Cooperative Extension Service.
Working primarily through three departments in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences - crop and soil sciences, plant pathology and entomology - the team is charged with conducting research on environmental quality, turf grass breeding, cultural management and herbicides, plant growth regulators, pesticide and nutrient fate, and disease and insect management.
Their current to-do list includes study of a long list of potential new grasses and turf - 132 tall fescues, 30 Zoysia grasses, 20 buffalo grasses and 32 Bermuda grasses - on the college's three campuses in Tifton, Griffin and Athens.
The teaching team also recently established a new undergraduate major in turf grass, which is one indication of the industry's rapid growth.
Estimates suggest that, at 1.6 million acres, turf grass is one of the state's largest agricultural commodities. At a yearly cost of about $660 to maintain an acre of turf grass, Georgia boasts a $1.56 billion annual turf grass industry. Among the major components:
Sod production: The 1997 Georgia Nursery, Greenhouse and Turf Survey compiled by the Georgia Agricultural Statistics Service reported more than 17,000 acres producing sod and stolons. The farm-gate value that year was $52 million - a 50 percent increase over 1992.
Golf courses: In 1998, Georgia had 430 golf courses, averaging expenses of $557,000 a year for labor, supplies and equipment. That adds up to $239.5 million statewide. That same year, Georgia was ranked fifth in the country in the number of new courses opened and eighth in courses under construction, according to the National Golf Foundation. Only six states were in the top 10 in both of these categories.
Lawns: In merely the 18-county metro Atlanta area, the lawn maintenance industry covers about 120,000 acres and generates an estimated gross revenue of nearly $250 million a year. These firms employ nearly 10,000 full-time and 5,000 part-time employees with an annual payroll of $120 million. The Georgia industry is still relatively young, with nearly half its companies less than 6 years old.
Home lawns account for 800,000 acres in Georgia. On average, homeowners spend $400 per acre annually to maintain their lawns - a total of $312 million.
With all this at stake, it's easy to understand why the UGA Extension Service utilizes its statewide team of county agents to deliver educational information to homeowners and the turf grass industry. They certify pesticide applicators through hours of training throughout the state, teach Master Gardener sessions to thousands of eager gardeners, interpret many thousands of soil samples from lawns and gardens, and answer questions from concerned clientele throughout the growing season. A digital diagnostics system has placed a computer and digital camera in nearly 100 county extension offices to allow for quick diagnosis of insect and disease problems on lawns, gardens and crops (see Behind the Scenes).
This pervasive system extends the reach of the UGA turf team from back yards across Georgia to research plots around the world. Both of Duncan's new paspalum varieties are in the final stages of licensing globally, with possibly 15 to 20 licenses to growers in the United States and many more in Europe, Japan and Australia.
This species is propagated vegetatively, not through seed.
"In 1995, we had some indication these two paspalums would be the best in our tests so we went to one stolon - one vegetative piece of material. Everything I now have is from that one single plant part," Duncan said. "To see how genetically stable it is, we can trace every bit to this one source with a DNA profile.
"That's what sports people want," he said. "They don't want its ugly cousin showing its face on their course or sports field."
These demanding clients are feeling different pressures than they did when Bermuda grasses were being developed.
"Hybrid Bermuda grass was king when water and fertilizer were cheap," Duncan said. "It was so much better than common Bermuda grass. It took over sports, landscapes and the golf industry. It made turf grass a global household name.
"Now fertilizer is expensive, people are concerned about excess nitrogen and phosphorus, and they want to reduce pesticides because of environmental concerns," he said. "Things are changing. Water and environmental concerns are dictating the need for something new without sacrificing sports performance or appearance."
Establishing a new warm-season grass in the home of hybrid Bermuda grass has been a challenge. Duncan asks golf course managers to give the paspalum a try in the problem areas: wet, boggy land; environmentally sensitive zones; and places where the grass is under stress.
"Get it established and let the grass take care of itself," he said. "This grass hates high nitrogen so we have to get them to cut back. Now we're getting them to try it on whole practice greens. Once they see it and play on it, that's the deciding factor. Once they get in tune with minimal management, they get excited."
Paspalum also has potential for bioremediation projects, in reclamation of contaminated or problem soil. It has been used successfully in South Africa to reclaim mining areas. Research is ongoing with the Savannah River Plant in Aiken, S.C., where nuclear materials have been produced.
Sports fields put the paspalums to a tough test under football, soccer and baseball cleats. Duncan said he had hoped interest would build slowly in this area; instead, inquiries are coming in fast - even from domed stadiums, where safety concerns are pushing plastic and acrylic turfs off the field. Zoysia grass does well in domes but it is slow to recover after a game. Bermuda grass requires full sun. Paspalum's low light requirements, quick recovery and minimal maintenance make it attractive for sports.
"We put it on a YMCA soccer field in Hinesville and a high school practice football field near Peachtree City," Duncan said. "We turned the kids on the fields to see how it would do."
The researchers speculate that there will be a reduced amount of knee injuries and fewer abrasions, he said. The team built a sports research field in Griffin to show coaches exactly what it can do. "Show-and-tell is worth all the slides and talks in the world."
For more information, access http://www.griffin.peachnet.edu/cssci/turf/turf.htm.
Janet Rodekohr is a news editor for UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She also works with educational marketing and coordinates communication needs for the Cooperative Extension Service.