Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.
The Right Idea at the Right Time
What if the Wildflower Center offered a garden product that would look luxurious, save you time and money, conserve precious resources and make you feel good about conserving your environment?
We hope that it will be coming soon to a garden store near you.
For the past two years, our Wildflower Center research scientists have been trying to develop a new kind of lawn – one that looks as good as the water-hungry, problem-prone St. Augustine, is as tough as bermudagrass but not invasive and is as velvety in texture as Kentucky bluegrass.
The challenge was that no single native grass quite filled the bill. Buffalo grass conserves water, but doesn’t like to be trampled. Some native grasses require just as much water and elbow grease as their non-native relatives.
Thanks to Wal-Mart and our restoration ecologist, Mark Simmons, we are on the way to a solution – a combination of several species of drought-adapted native grasses that looks good and performs well. Searching for a more sustainable turf grass for the landscaping at its store sites, Wal-Mart made a research grant to the Wildflower Center that enabled it to evaluate possible solutions. Simmons, a student of native prairies, drew on his knowledge of grasslands to find species that were climate-adapted and able to exist in a stable plant community. His team, Michelle Bertelsen, Holly Zafian, Phillip Schultze and Jeannine Tinsley, did the planting, monitoring and maintenance.
If you walk out our Research Trail to the small-plot area, you will see multiple plots of grass there to help test the performance of various species mixes. We are monitoring them for appearance – whether or not they have that rich velvety look Americans love – and how they handle traffic, how they compete with common weeds and how much maintenance they need to look their best.
The grasses now being tested include Buffalo grass (Bouteloua dactyloides), blue grama, (Bouteloua gracilis), Texas grama (Bouteloua rigidiseta), curly-mesquite (Hilaria beranger), hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta), poverty dropseed (Sporobolus vaginiflorus) and hairy tridens (Erioneuron pilosum).
So far, our observations show that a mix of these species outperforms Bermudagrass in that it establishes itself faster, makes thicker turf, needs less mowing and is more resistant to weeds.
Not every place in the country has faced the exceptional drought and record heat that plagues Central Texas this year, but more and more cities and states are facing water shortages as well as rising air and water pollution levels. Those lawns we love so much contribute significantly to these problems. A growing number of cities limit landscape watering. Lawns also use large quantities of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides – chemicals that run off into the water supply.
The maintenance lawns require from gasoline-powered mowers, trimmers and blowers causes enough air pollution that cities with high ozone levels often ban maintenance during hot daylight hours. Our native turf grass would prove an excellent alternative to the turf grasses now in common use across much of the country.
There is much work left to do – more experimenting and testing to be sure that we know what works in Central Texas. We would like to expand our study to create alternative native seed mixes for use in different regions of the country.
Then there are complicated questions of supply and demand that must be addressed to bring this product to market. (We believe the demand exists, particularly if a global marketer like Wal-Mart would introduce this product. That could create supply by encouraging commercial growers to produce seeds.)
However, we are proud of the way our research is once again proving how native plants can solve environmental problems and create a better planet for all of us. — Susan K. Rieff, Executive Director