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S O U T H W E S T R E P R I N T S
The History of Bermudagrass
by David M. Kopec, Ph.D., Desert Turf Specialist, University of Arizona
Bermudagrass is most likely the toughest grass used for turf in areas of the desert southwest, the southern plains, and the humid southeastern United States. No other warm season grass has so many attributes. These include:
Because bermudagrass has specialized growth stems and a relatively rapid growth rate, it is usually excellent at crowding out weeds. This is the primary reason why bermuda grows back so well when it is injured. Underground shoots (called rhizomes) help bermudagrass fill in void spots in a lawn. Aboveground runners (stolons), similar to those on strawberry plants, also serve the same function. While these properties are highly beneficial, they are often disdained as making bermudagrass an "invasive weed" where it is not wanted.
- Excellent resistance to heat and drought
- Low water use rate
- Dense sod formation
- Tolerance of a wide range of soil pH ranges
- Good tolerance to salty water and conditions
- Good traffic tolerance
- Relative ease of establishment
- Grows on hard soil surfaces and shallow soils, better than most other grasses
Where did bermudagrass come from? Like almost all of our turfgrass species, bermudagrass was introduced to the United States. The origin of the first introduction of bermudagrass most likely came from contaminated hay, which was used as bedding when slaves were brought to America. Millions and millions of seeds were distributed initially across the eastern United States. Surviving plants then were able to make more seeds and so on.
Bermudagrass plants were then used exclusively for forage purposes for hundreds of years and no doubt also as a lawn grass by default, even though seed was sold mostly for forage. Bermudagrass was used in the southern United States in the early 1900's as a golf course turf, and was used as an "alternative" for sand greens that were exactly that--a putting surface comprised of sand with no grass! Over time (many decades), lower growing types of "common bermudagrass" began to show up on seeded bermudagrass greens. Greenskeepers and a few scientists treated these findings with curiosity. In the 1940's, one such plant was collected from a golf course in Savannah, Georgia. After further testing and evaluation, it was released as a single plant (sod-type) bermuda named "U-3."
In the mid-1940's, Dr. Glenn Burton of the USDA in Tifton, Georgia asked golf course superintendents in the south to send him plugs of bermudagrass "from the best part of their best green. These plants were increased in number so they could be evaluated for turf performance, winter survival, and ability to grow back in the spring after they were overseeded with annual ryegrass in the fall. One of the superior plants from this collection was crossed with a disease resistant pasture type bermuda. One of the plants that originated from that cross was later released in 1952 as "Tifflawn" bermudagrass. This again was a single plant variety, and was sold as sod. Dr. Burton also discovered that other species of bermudagrass produced low growing plants with turfgrass potential. One of these species was African bermudagrass.
Plants of African bermudagrass are low growing, but tend to scalp in the heat of summer temperatures. It is closely related enough to common bermudagrass that it will occasionally cross with common bermudagrass and make a first-generation plant. However, this plant is a sterile "mule" which will never make viable pollen or seed ever. Dr. Burton capitalized on this discovery and made many crosses between low growing African and better common bermuda plant selections. After years of testing hundreds of sterile hybrid mule plants for turf qualities, several "hybrids" were released from the Tifton Experiment Station in Georgia. These included "Tiffine" (an improved lawn type) and Tifgreen, the first major improvement in bermudagrass for greens and other closely mowed turfs. Tifgreen was released in 1956 and is still sold and in use today. Many golf courses in Arizona are planted to Tifgreen 328 bermuda. It is not for home lawn use because it requires low mowing heights of 1/2 inch or less. Its predominate use is on greens mowed at 5/32 inch (certainly not within the management level of the average homeowner).
In 1960, another sterile vegetative (mule) hybrid was released called Tifway 419. Just like Tifgreen, Tifway 419 had finer leaves and more surface shoots than common bermudagrass, but it grew taller. Tifway is a popular hybrid bermudagrass used in Arizona. It looks best when mowed with a reel-type mower at base height ranges of 1/2 to 1 inch. Although it can be mowed taller with a rotary mower at heights of 1/2 to 2 inches, it often becomes leggy and tends to show scalping injury symptoms during the summer monsoon.
Other vegetatively propagated sterile hybrid bermudagrasses include Tifdwarf and Tifway II. Tifdwarf is used for golf course greens only, while the same applications for Tifway II applies to Tifway.
Tifdwarf was released in 1965 and Tifway II was released in 1981. Since then, seed companies and other universities have commercially released many other improved seeded and sterile "mule" vegetative bermudagrass varieties.
Remember: Any bermudagrass can be increased and sold from vegetative propagation means (sod, plugs, stolons, etc.) It does not have to be sterile. But, all sterile hybrid bermudagrass varieties must be established by vegetative propagation methods.
Another thing to keep in mind: If you buy bermuda from seed, it will make seed. If it makes seed, it will make pollen.
Reprinted from Turf Tips, January, 2003
Maricopa County Master Gardener Volunteer Information
Last Updated July 28, 2003
Author: Lucy K. Bradley, Extension Agent Urban Horticulture, University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Maricopa County
© 1997 The University of Arizona, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension in Maricopa County
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