Home Context ‘Grasses of the margins’

‘Grasses of the margins’

The story of paspalum turfgrass is a surprising and fascinating journey that includes those central themes of our American experience

Photo courtesy of asergeev.com

Let’s start with an exercise.

Hold out your thumb and observe how large it is.

It’s likely no taller than two nickels stacked on top of each other with the thickness of a couple of pencils. The variation of size might vary from person to person, but the general sentiment remains the same.

Hold up your thumb in the room you’re in. How much space does it take up now? 

Step outside to your patio or your yard, and repeat the exercise. The ratio has gotten increasingly smaller.

Keep that perspective in your mind because that thumb — that imminently crucial yet disproportionately small portion of your body — is roughly the same size as a cultivar of grass. This might not mean a lot at first, but hold that image for a bit and you start to understand how much influence these tiny tangles of blades and roots possess.

These cultivars — these little slivers of turf — hold a crucial connection to an entire region’s relationship with its history, lifestyle, recreation and economic fortunes. It’s a story of who we are, where we are from and what we strive to be, both from a scientific and cultural perspective. 

It’s the broader story of grass and, in particular, the story of one type of grass that has surged in popularity across the Southeastern U.S. — paspalum. 

Regarded as a gamechanger for the turfgrass industry, its roots, literally and figuratively, reach beyond that hot summer day in 1993 when University of Georgia agronomist Dr. Ronny Duncan plucked a handful of those thumb-sized samples for further study and evaluation. Today, it is emerging as one of the preeminent grasses deployed on golf courses, recreational parks and outdoor stadiums across the Southeast.

From Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, to the famed Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, paspalum has established itself as a durable, trusted turfgrass that can weather the wear and tear of the environment and recreation of the region.

But its story stretches back across hundreds of years, spanning continents and enduring lawsuits to make up but one chapter in the broader tale of who we are today.

“This is a story of how a little cultivar of grass that is about the size of your thumb becomes a turfgrass that becomes widely used, 20 years later now,” noted Brett Avery, a freelance writer and a former editor of the United States Golf Association’s Golf Journal. “(People) were completely oblivious to that story.”

And, as with anything in the South, appreciating it today means understanding its context from yesterday. 

The roots of its history

The tumult of the Civil War brought seismic change to the South.

The region had crafted an entire economic system on the backs of enslaved people, stealing African lives and forcibly deploying them to toil in plantations across the old Confederacy. This economy drove incredible wealth for white plantation owners through the cultivation of cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco. 

The war — as well as Emancipation, Reconstruction, the notorious rise of Jim Crow and the Great Migration that started in the 1910s — marked the end of this economic arrangement. To address this disruption, agriscientists began to explore ways to advance grass agriculture in the region for a host of reasons.

First, the American South actually was quite hostile to most of the husbandry grasses that one would find elsewhere in the country. The pastoral grasses prevalent across the Plains states or Midwest don’t do well in the humid, hot conditions of Alabama or Georgia. The South’s grasses were woods grasses given the heavily forested areas of the region.

Additionally, the region was undergoing a transition in terms of how it approached animal husbandry. Prior to the war, landowners would let cows, pigs and other livestock roam in common lands. 

“The problem came into play after the Civil War when all of that common land started to be enclosed for a variety of reasons because there was an enclosure movement,” said Dr. Bert Way, an agricultural and environmental historian at Kennesaw State University. “Suddenly people who had been accustomed to running their cows in the woods at very little cost either had to put them on planted, cultivated pasture grass or give up the livestock trade.”

Enclosed private property meant farmers needed reliable grasses for grazing, and the options available to them just wouldn’t cut it. As such, the interest in — and necessity of — agricultural science exploded in the following years, fueled particularly by the rush of public monies during the New Deal. Property owners needed grasses, and researchers sought to find solutions.

File photo via UGA Today of Dr. Glenn Burton from the UGA Tifton Campus Library collection

At the forefront of this scientific movement was Glenn Burton, an agriscientist with the USDA based in Tifton, Georgia. His mission was precise and focused — identifying a pastoral grass that could be used across the American South.

“The South never had to really consider this because the simple answer is there was so much land in native range available to them, and that goes for really until after the Civil War in all regions of the south,” said Way. “Changing values around the environment very much shaped the development of those cultivars. Burton, in the beginning, had no idea he would be developing lawn and golf course grasses.”

Burton turned to Bermudagrass, considered a controversial choice at the time given its reputation as an invasive weed that threatened crop farmers. It offered, however, the potential for modification, and he was able to mix various grasses together to craft a unique hybrid that we know today as Tift Bermudagrass. 

To minimize the threat of having its seed spread through wind or other environmental disruption to neighboring fields, it had to be propagated through sprigs. Today, Bermudagrass, particularly the Tift varieties that Burton engineered, are prominent through the South, filling lawns, lining fairways and helping to drive forage production across the region.

While it changed the environmental landscape of communities from Louisiana to Virginia, it’s important to remember that none of it is from here.

“You have these suburban communities, you have places like Pinehurst (Golf Club in North Carolina), and you have coastal communities in, say, Florida and South Carolina, and these are all spaces that are not naturally producing turfgrasses,” said Dr. Matthew Himel, a lecturer at Mississippi State University. “The American South as a whole does not have natural turfgrass. They don’t have grasslands, so none of this is natural.”

An alien landscape

Many of our grasses come from, well, anywhere but here.

 In fact, they’re nearly all invasive species, spreading unfettered across the North American continent in the same conquering fashion as the first European colonists. For instance, there’s nothing inherently Kentuckian about Kentucky Bluegrass. It’s originally from Northern Africa and Eurasia, slowly making its way across the Atlantic Ocean for foraging and recreation.

And you think Bermudagrass is local? Far from it. It’s not even from Bermuda. Try India and East Africa. Now, of course, thanks to Burton’s work, it and its various hybrids span the nation, covering lawns and spanning golf courses in various climates.

Way said to consider these grasses we all know so well today as “naturalized species” that have been integrated into the landscape through research, science and agricultural expertise. It’s made the inclusion of these immigrant turfgrasses as American as the story of, well, us. 

“Many of these grasses — just to talk ecologically for a minute — almost all the grasses I’ve been talking about are grasses of the margins,” Way said. “They were grasses of disturbance. They spread where the ground was disturbed. Like Bermudagrass, it’s not a dominant grass species anywhere, but it’s a colonizer by its nature.”

This, of course, makes the story a bit more complicated because paspalum, perhaps, has embarked on the most interesting, winding journey to prominence of them all. Consider the breed of paspalum used at all of Kiawah Island’s golf courses, including the Ocean Course which will host the 2021 PGA Championship.

While there are some paspalum species that are native to the U.S., they aren’t suitable for cultivation into turfgrass. In the case of Kiawah Island, the non-native species that has been modified into the paspalum we know today was first uncovered growing wild in the dunes of Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina. 

If it’s not from here, then how did it get here?

Dr. Paul Raymer is a professor in crop and soil sciences with the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and is regarded as one of the leading experts on turfgrass breeding. He is constantly exploring the origins of these various grasses and believes there is evidence which suggests paspalum is a remnant of the slave trade.

The Sullivan’s Island sample, for instance, is believed to have come from the crude bedding that was deployed on the ships that ferried enslaved people from West Africa to the U.S. Places like Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia were prominent ports of entry.

Given the ease of its spread and its ability to thrive in adverse conditions, it’s not surprising to think that it would have taken root in the sandy beaches of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

“In the case of Savannah, if you go where Fort Pulaski is, on that north pier is where the slave ships boarded,” Raymer said. “They unloaded the slaves on the island as essentially a place of confinement until they could be moved to the market in Savannah. If those areas along the north pier are where the ships would dock, you can find paspalum there.”

That durability — that persistence — has made paspalum a suitable fit for coastal regions in the Southeast.

The potential of paspalum

Kiawah Island, like many coastal golf communities, has long wrestled with the challenges of keeping its greens and fairways vibrant. The Ocean Course, in particular, has the majority of its holes line the Atlantic Ocean. The ongoing onslaught of wind, salt and sand can wear down the vitality of the course. 

Additionally, available water to hydrate the course is higher in sodium and bicarbonates, which Bermudagrass — the turfgrass of choice for most Southern courses — has a more difficult time withstanding.

“It’s going to take a generation for people to understand how paspalum works, how it grows, where the grain is, what the fast putts and slow putts are, just because it’s so different”.

— Chip Beck, former PGA Tour golfer

Encouraged by renowned golf course architect Pete Dye to swap out the Bermudagrass for paspalum in the early 2000s, Kiawah Island eyed a change.

“We were having trouble with the Bermudagrass just year round, and Pete recommended that we take a look at paspalum because it’s very salt-tolerant,” said Stephen Youngner, the head professional for the Ocean Course. “At the time, it was 2003 when we put it on the greens, and we were the furthest course north to have paspalum.”

The results have paid off. As Himel explained, paspalum grows so quickly, the plant never has time to effectively metabolize the salt in the water so the crystals never bind with the roots or leaves. Essentially, the grass absorbs what it needs from the water without any of the harmful byproducts that tend to kill other species.

“Certainly it’s a perfect fit for those types of situations,” said Raymer. “That’s where you find paspalum, growing around the world in these really difficult places where not many other plants will grow at all.”

It also is a beautifully striking turfgrass, boasting vibrant color and soft playing conditions for golfers. It’s lush fullness allows the ball to set up nicely in the fairway, allowing for a better approach shot to the green.

But paspalum also presents a unique challenge for many golfers, who look to the grain of the grass to help read putts. Paspalum essentially doesn’t have a grain, which can affect where the ball will go and how to play one’s shot.

“It’s going to take a generation for people to understand how paspalum works, how it grows, where the grain is, what the fast putts and slow putts are, just because it’s so different,” said Chip Beck, a former PGA Tour golfer who was part of the winning U.S. team at the 1991 Ryder Cup at the Ocean Course. 

The introduction of paspalum was revolutionary for the turfgrass industry. It possesses some of the qualities that made Bermudagrass such a popular choice across the region, but also features an adaptability that gives it the potential to reshape the industry.

“If you were to tell the history of turfgrass as it relates to athletic facilities and home lawns and parks and things of that nature, this is going to be one of those big moments,” Avery said. “Paspalum steps in, and it’s a broad sweeping change over time.”

And it almost never happened.

A question of ownership

Let’s go back to 1993 and Duncan with his cultivars of grass. 

As Avery noted, the UGA researcher was concerned that changing environmental conditions could lead to future restrictions on water usage, meaning many golf courses, athletic facilities and shared public spaces would need to find additional sources of water. The industry needed to be ready, and that meant literally changing the ground beneath their feet.

Photo courtesy of GaPaspalum.com

Knowing that paspalum could tolerate high levels of salinity, he diligently searched for samples to inform his research. He found them as he was scooting around on a golf cart at Alden Pines Golf Club in South Florida. Spying a few deviations that could offer clues for new breeds that could be adapted for widespread use, he brought some cultivars back to his research facility in Griffin, Georgia and went to work.

It was from those small samples he arrived at Sea Isle 2000, one of the premier paspalum turfgrasses on the market today. It could hold up under adverse conditions, including high salinity and exacerbated stress from heat, wind and human interaction. It was disease resistant and could withstand being cut very closely, something crucial for its application to athletic use.

By the late 1990s, the UGA Research Foundation filed for a patent to get ready to take it to market. And that’s when everything came to a halt.

Stewart Bennett, the owner of Alden Pines who had driven that golf cart for Duncan, filed a lawsuit that alleged the UGA researcher had misled him and failed to outline the possibilities of future revenue from any scientific discoveries. In Bennett’s mind, the grass came from his property, and that meant he was entitled to his piece of the pie.

In response, according to Avery’s article on the lawsuit, the foundation filed a countersuit that claimed Bennett had “engaged in predatory and anti-competitive conduct by trying to secure his own patent for three strains of paspalum developed from Alden Pines.”

The entire turfgrass industry, which had never experienced this type of litigation before, ground to a halt.

“It had a chilling effect for a short period of time because people were uncertain before this was settled,” Avery said. “They wondered if they would be able to go out and select as Duncan did that day — I think it was eight to 10 samples from this course — am I able to do that and continue my research? It was a very difficult time for people in this very small industry — in terms of the number of people in it and the amount of money in it — but it really had a chilling effect.”

Photo of sidebar written in Golf Journal courtesy of Avery

The lawsuits ultimately were settled, and today Alden Pines is recognized on the university’s official website dedicated to its research and marketing of paspalum.

Raymer said the experience proved to be educational for the entire industry, especially the university. Georgia, as well as other research institutions, has enhanced its transparency with property owners as its personnel set out to collect samples. 

Researchers now credit the source of the samples, and there is a more rigorous negotiation process at the beginning of research rather than the end. This isn’t to suggest those measures weren’t being done, as Avery and Raymer both said a “handshake agreement” — something that was long deemed as sufficient in the turfgrass industry prior to the lawsuit — existed between the two parties. The pair suggested it wasn’t until Bennett saw the commercial potential behind Sea Isle 2000 that he raised the lawsuit.

“I think Duncan was focused on the industry and getting this product out to the industry and not so much on the commercial value,” Raymer said. “It’s unfortunate it all occurred the way it did. I think it could have been handled up front without any confusion and with a lot less drama.”

Still searching for answers

Today, the turfgrass industry is one of the premier economic engines for the state of Georgia.

It employs nearly 90,000 people, generating roughly $9 billion in economic impact. Grasses developed by researchers at the University of Georgia are prominent throughout the country. But we still wrestle with these questions about origin and place and purpose, making it all the more important to fully understand the context surrounding them.

Today, grasses that made their way to the U.S. as the bedding of slave ships populate the suburban lawns of America. How do we reconcile that?

The advancements in these grasses come through the insights and intellect of our most talented researchers. How do we place a value on that knowledge?

These scientific discoveries come via samples collected in fields, dunes and courses across the country. Does land ownership have any claim to intellectual property?

The lawns and fairways are maintained by blue-collar workers — many of them immigrants like the grass they tend to — on a daily basis, achieving their pristine conditions through hours of sweat equity. Should the labor deployed for this maintenance be taken into consideration when evaluating ownership?

These aren’t easy questions to answer.

Himel, who focuses on the intersection of turfgrass history and its relationship with the golf industry, said it’s impossible to separate those cultural origins of grass from the role they play in our everyday lives.

“The ability (for researchers) to say they have created something entirely new, something substantially different, and that it’s been improved upon significantly, completely removes that cultural origin,” he said. “I think that is a harm to the sport. It serves a way to disconnect golf from the rest of history in a way.” 

Raymer, however, noted the importance of including the impact science has on the end product.

“If you look at both, it’s a chicken and egg scenario, right?” he said. “The grass had no value sitting on Alden Pines Golf Course. It had no value until it was collected by a breeder, evaluated and then picked out of a whole group that this one actually could have commercial value. At the same time, I think you do have to recognize the legal ownership of that material, even if you were given permission to collect it and evaluate it.”

In the end, we’re back at the beginning. A handful of thumb-sized samples have led to paspalum emerging as a highly beneficial, highly adaptable grass with the potential to play a significant role for communities that are concerned about water resources and environmental change. It has helped to fuel an ascending industry and drive meaningful research at Georgia and beyond.

But it’s not without those troublesome questions and concerns that so familiarly haunt much of the broader American story around place, culture and race. Recognizing them doesn’t devalue the promise of the product, but rather provide the necessary context to that story for us all to learn and grow.

“Burton’s cultivars, and all of these cultivars, they all come from samples from other places and from other people’s land, so how do you get to that question of ownership?” Way said. “Then again, I’m not sure the point you’re trying to arrive at is to get an answer. 

“This is what these types of histories do — they connect all kinds of themes and all kinds of American life together and help us to realize the complicated nature of our past and our present. Almost any historical question that we ask it seems, we end up with this type of answer that’s not necessarily the answer we were seeking. But it’s some kind of answer about our world.”

This article took a lot of time and energy to produce. If you like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon.
Become a patron at Patreon!
Previous articleAugusta’s parallel economy
Next articleFrom boomtown to bakery, Todd and its Mercantile endure
Avatar photo
Johnathan McGinty has worked in sports journalism and sports public relations for the past 20 years. If there's an opportunity to put together an oral history on something, he'll find a way to do it.