MYSTERY PLANT: Mystery Plant is drought-tolerant, good for sod
I’m a botanist, of course, and I’ve always got my eyes open for good botanical art. One of my favorite plant paintings is by Albrecht Dürer, titled “Das grosse Rasenstück.” Dürer’s painting from 1503 is of one of the most humble, or perhaps modest, subjects imaginable: a big piece of soil, with grasses and things growing on it. It’s a hunk of turf from somebody’s front yard.
You might think that this would make a rather boring picture, but no. It is amazingly lifelike and intricately detailed, revealing bluegrass, a couple of ferns, some dandelions and mullein, among other things. For me, it is a lesson: when you start studying botany, the wonderful details will pull you farther and farther in – they have for me.
Now turf, or sod, is a lot more important than many people think. The turf industry is a huge one, involving selection and application of the right sod-producing plants, for whatever need is at hand. The economics of the sod and turf industry has demanded the development of newer and better strains of appropriate grasses, just like any other kind of agricultural enterprise. The beauty and health of residential and commercial lawns, athletic fields and golf courses is at stake, and has resulted in a perennial multi-million dollar industry. In general, turf production is based on the use of grass species, and of course, not all grass species form turf.
It turns out that many of the valuable turf grasses here in the Southeast are actually introduced species, and like many introduced species, these grasses sometimes get out of control. This week’s Mystery Plant is a native of South America, and it was introduced into the Southeast as a forage plant for cattle and livestock and for stabilizing roadsides in the 1930s. The plants are perennial, and they produce massive, scaly rhizomes just at the level of the soil.
Our Mystery Plant is one of the best sod-forming species available. Its rhizomes, if given enough time, will cover the surface of the ground, effectively excluding all other plants. As a turf grass, it forms an excellent short cover – of course, it does have to be mowed – and the plants form a comfortable surface for barefoot walking so important here in the South. Additionally, this species is drought tolerant, and seems to be able to take all the heat of the summer. Nor does it seem to be prone to many diseases or pests. It does demand full sunlight, so this is one of those grasses that won’t do well in the shade.
In the summer, you can see this species practically all over the South from Virginia to Texas, but it is especially abundant along roadsides and highways in the coastal plain. You can’t miss it. When the plants bloom, they send up stalks to about knee-high, terminated with a pair of spikes. Each spike bears 50 or so oval spikelets, and each “spikelet” contains a single one-seeded fruit, or grain. The two spikes are in the form of a “Y”. Sort of like thousands and thousands of peace-symbols going down the highway.
[Answer: “Bahia grass”, Paspalum notatum]