Gladys Knight and the Pips’ “Midnight Train to Georgia” reached the top of the song charts in 1973. Let’s take a historical train ride back to Georgia in honor of the 75th anniversary of the University of Georgia’s bermudagrass
Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) originated in Africa, with botanical connections in India, Southeast Asia and Australia. Bermudagrass was first reported in the USA in 1751, as a passenger among the hay on a ship docked in Savannah, Ga. By the early
1800s, it rapidly spread through the southern U.S. and eventually was found from Maine to California. “Bermudagrass” became the accepted name because that ship sailed from the island of Bermuda. It is also called couchgrass or wiregrass
on other continents.
The University of Georgia’s Tifton Campus also houses the USDA’s Coastal Plain Agricultural Experiment Station. Since bermudagrass was growing naturally all throughout Georgia, Glenn W. Burton, Ph.D., (1910-2005) was hired there as a
plant breeder in 1936 to develop bermudagrasses for forage and pasture uses. Later in his career, he made significant advances with pearl millet, which contributed greatly to the green revolution.
At the time of Burton’s hiring, putting green surfaces throughout the southern U.S. were either sand (yes — actual sand!) or seeded common types of bermudagrass, or possibly perennial ryegrass in cooler months. The golf course industry wanted
a better bermudagrass more suitable for putting greens. Thus, with support from the USGA, Burton began the bermudagrass breeding program in 1946. He asked golf courses to send him plugs of bermudagrass “from the best part of their
best green.” That large collection of plants was grown in the greenhouse then transferred to field plots to evaluate turf performance, winter survival and spring green-up after being overseeded with perennial ryegrass in the fall.
Let’s take a look at notable bermudagrass cultivars released over the years:
- 1952 Tiflawn: Some field-grown plants that showed superior traits were crossed with a disease-resistant common bermudagrass, and the offspring (or progeny) were planted and maintained as a putting green. The best hybrid was selected
for better density and less weed and disease problems compared to common bermudagrass, and therefore Burton’s first bermudagrass cultivar was called Tiflawn.
- 1953 Tiffine: Tiflawn (tall, coarse textured, disease tolerant) was crossed with Cynodon transvaalensis (finer leaves but disease-prone) from South Africa that resulted in Tiffine used on sports fields and playgrounds.
- 1956 Tifgreen: There was something special about some bermudagrasses on the fourth green at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club. Those plants became the parents of Tifgreen, which is fine-textured and softer, produced few seedheads, is
forest green and became the putting green bermudagrass Burton was looking for.
- 1960 Tifway: This accidental hybrid was darker green and better suited for fairways and tees and has enjoyed widespread use and adaptation in the U.S. and globally.
- 1965 Tifdwarf: Again, a serendipitous discovery on putting greens resulted in Tifdwarf, considered a natural mutant of Tifgreen.
- 1981 Tifway II and 1983 Tifgreen II: These cultivars were developed from sprigs of Tifgreen, Tifway and Tifdwarf exposed to cobalt-60 gamma rays to produce mutations.
- 1988 Tifton 10: This was derived from bermudagrass collected from a lawn in Shanghai.
- 1995 TifSport and 1997 TifEagle: Again, the cobalt-60 method was used to develop these cultivars.
- 2009 TifGrand: C. transvaalensis plants that persisted under low maintenance were crossed with C. dactylon plants tolerant to low mowing and cold conditions. The progeny was subjected to low light conditions, and the result was the
darker green, dwarf-type TifGrand with good quality under shade.
- 2014 TifTuf: After 19 drought stress field trials, TifTuf was the name given to the winner because it had better drought stress and traffic tolerance, was faster growing and had better fall color retention.
Burton retired in 1997, but the bermudagrass breeding program continued to make valuable contributions. Burton is the only turfgrass scientist to receive the President’s National Medal of Science. He received that honor at the White House on
May 24, 1983.
Source: Baxter, L.L., and B.M. Schwartz. 2018. History of bermudagrass turfgrass breeding research in Tifton, Ga. HortScience 53(11):1560-1561 (https://doi.org/10.21273/HORTSCI13257-18).
Mike Fidanza, Ph.D., is a professor of plant and soil science in the Division of Science, Berks Campus, at Pennsylvania State University in Reading, Pa. He is a 21-year member of GCSAA.