ATA Turf Times – Dave Han, PhD & Beth Guertal, PhD, Alabama Extension & Auburn University
It sometimes seems as though the turfgrass world is being bombarded by new turfgrass varieties. Although turf managers who come from the world of seeded cool-season grasses are more used to changes in variety names and blends, the world of vegetatively-propagated warm-season grasses has traditionally been more static. After all, Tifway bermudagrass has been with us since the 1960s, and Meyer and Emerald zoysiagrass had a decades-long run as the dominant varieties in the Southeast. But in recent years, the market has seen newer varieties making inroads into the warm-season markets, especially bermudagrasses and zoysiagrasses. Here is an overview of some of the new and new-ish varieties to the market in the Southeast in the last few years.
Where do these new grasses come from?
Universities and the USDA
There are several sources of new turfgrass varieties. Some of the most well-known warm-season turfgrasses were developed by universities working alone or in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. The prime example of such a cooperative effort is the breeding program at Tifton, Georgia, where the breeding program shared by the University of Georgia and the USDA-ARS has given us many famous bermudagrass varieties over the decades, from Tifgreen (328) and Tifway (419) in the 1950s and 1960s all the way to TifTuf, released in 2016. TifTuf, the newest in the ’Tif’ series of hybrid bermudagrasses, maintains its color under drought conditions much better than Tifway and is fast growing. TifBlair centipedegrass, bred for increased cold tolerance, is another release from this group, while several seashore paspalum varieties such as the SeaIsle series and SeaStar have come from the University of Georgia’s breeding program at Griffin, Ga.
The University of Florida maintains an active turfgrass breeding program focusing mainly on developing St. Augustinegrass and zoysiagrass varieties. Released in 1973 in cooperation with Texas A&M, Floratam St. Augustinegrass is still a standard variety, while their newer St. Augustinegrasses Captiva and CitraBlue came out in 2007 and 2018, respectively. Captiva is a semi-dwarf variety with a lower growth habit than most St. Augustinegrasses, and CitraBlue is a UF has also released several zoysiagrasses in 2018 and 2019, such as FAES 1319 and FAES 1307.
Texas A&M University also has a new St. Augustinegrass variety, TamStar, bred for improved drought tolerance and tolerance to gray leaf spot. They are perhaps best known for their zoysiagrass releases. In the 1990s and 2000s, they released Diamond, Crowne, Palisades, Royal and Zorro. The latest zoysiagrass releases from
Texas A&M since 2015 include Chisolm, Lazer and Innovation. Chisolm and Innovation were developed in cooperation with Kansas State University. Lazer is a putting green variety, while Chisolm and Innovation are medium and fine textured grasses, respectively, suitable for fairways, lawns, etc. Both Innovation and Chisolm have been bred for improved cold tolerance. This is a common goal among all warm-season grass breeders. Another common characteristic of newer zoysiagrass varieties – from all sources – is that they tend to be faster growing than older zoysiagrasses. This offers quicker establishment and better recovery from damage, but may mean they need more frequent mowing.
Oklahoma State University is another prolific producer of warm-season turfgrass varieties, especially bermudagrasses with improved cold tolerance. In the past twenty years, OSU released Patriot (in 2006), Latitude 36 and Northbridge in 2011, and most recently Tahoma 31 in 2019. Oklahoma State also has released seeded bermudagrass varieties such as Riviera and Yukon. It has also shown improved shade tolerance in bermudagrass variety trials.
Other universities in the southern USA also have research ongoing aimed at developing warm-season turfgrass varieties, such as North Carolina State, where the breeding program has released a commercial tall fescue variety and has St. Augustinegrass varieties under trial in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP). Mississippi State University is testing several of its bermudagrasses in the latest NTEP test also. Auburn University is not breeding warm season turfgrasses at this time; the latest release from Auburn was AU Victory bentgrass.
Seed companies are, unsurprisingly, a source for seeded turfgrass varieties. In the warm-season sphere, this usually means bermudagrass, though there is some interest in seeded zoysiagrasses.
Within the seeded bermudagrass world, there is something of a changing of the guard happening, with several large seed companies introducing new flagship varieties to replace some familiar names. Johnston Seed has recently come out with Monaco seeded bermudagrass, a cold tolerant, visually appealing common bermudagrass that Johnston is marketing as a replacement for the older Riviera, a variety developed at Oklahoma State and also marketed by Johnston Seed. Johnston also has some vegetatively-propagated common bermudagrasses under development, and has released one under the variety name Landrun.
Pennington Seed’s newest seeded bermudagrass variety is Arden-15, which is slated to replace the venerable Princess-77, itself one of the most popular of the fine-textured, visually appealing seeded bermudagrass varieties of the past two decades. Pure-Seed Testing and DLF-Pickseed are also developing seeded bermudagrass varieties for use as turfgrasses, and have entered some possibilities in the most recent NTEP bermudagrass variety trial.
Although many farms grow sod, a few also run their own programs to find and develop new varieties to sell themselves and/or license to other farms to grow. In Alabama, the most well-known example of a variety developed by a private sod farm is Classic St. Augustinegrass, from Woerner Turf. Perhaps the largest sod farm that is releasing turfgrass varieties is Bladerunner Farms in Poteet, TX near San Antonio. Bladerunner has released many zoysiagrasses over the past 20 years or more, including Jamur, a medium-textured zoysia and Zeon, a fine-bladed variety. Recent releases include Trinity, formerly called L1F, a fine-textured variety marketed for everything from fairways to home lawns, Cutlass (formerly Lowrider), a semi-dwarf type needing less mowing at lawn height, and Leisure Time (Y2), a medium textured general purpose zoysia.
Almost all of the turfgrass varieties released these days are patented. In order for a sod producer to grow them, that sod farmer must buy a license to do so and pay a fee back to whoever developed and patented the variety. Although some breeders (or their respective state seed commissions) handle the licensing of their own varieties, there are also companies that handle licensing issues for a number of different turfgrass varieties from different sources. Perhaps the largest two in the Southeast are Sod Solutions and The Turfgrass Group. Of these two, Sod Solutions not only licenses varieties developed by universities, it also owns its own varieties, such as Empire and Geo zoysiagrasses, Santee centipedegrass and Celebration bermudagrass.
Golf courses are a natural source for greens grasses, especially ultradwarf bermudagrasses. Many ultradwarfs began life on golf courses, including Sunday, Mach1, Miniverde and Champion.
Where can I find out about these varieties?
With such a wide array of new turfgrasses hitting the market from so many different sources, it’s probably not surprising that there are lots of data available on the performance of some of them and less for others. Varieties tend to undergo many years of testing in-house at universities or seed companies before release (for example, the first cross that led to TifTuf happened in 1992 – TifTuf was released in 2016). After that, they are often entered in the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP), which sends them to various sites – usually university research plots – for evaluation over a five-year period. This allows collection of data over many sites for an extended period of time, and weeds out the poorly performing ones. Companies will often cite NTEP results, because varieties that make it through that process usually will perform well in general use. In addition, companies and universities often feature their variety trials at field days and open houses, allowing visitors to see the tests for themselves. In the Southeast, almost every major land-grant university with a turfgrass program hosts NTEP trials. For more information go to www.ntep.org.READ THE ISSUE