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Chinese grass germ plasm leads to new varieties

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

Turf scientists at the University of Georgia are breeding new varieties of centipede grass using germ plasm collected from the grass's homeland, China.

In 1999, Wayne Hanna, a researcher with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, spent 23 days in the most rural areas of China collecting centipede samples.

Earl Elsner, former director of the Georgia Seed Development Commission, accompanied Hanna. Their trip was funded by a $50,000 grant from The Turfgrass Group and Patten Seed Company.

Trip planned before doors closed

"We had been breeding new centipede varieties, but we needed more germ plasm to build from," he said. "When countries began having restrictions for plant collection, I knew I'd better hurry up and get over there before it became impossible to do so."

Since the collection trip five years ago, Hanna has used the germ plasm to develop two new experimental varieties, a winter-hardy centipede and a shade-tolerant centipede.

The shade-tolerant variety, which can withstand 40-percent continuous shade, should be available to the public in three to five years.

Centipede grass first came to the United States in 1918, Hanna said. It's known for its ability to grow on sandy and poor soils. "It will grow where very little else will grow," Hanna said.

While in China, Hanna relied heavily on advice from the local people.

"We flew into cities in southern China, and for each collection trip we would work our way by car 50 to 100 miles in each direction from the city," he said. "We'd stop and talk to the locals and follow their directions through the rice patties."

Buffalos made search challenging

Even though centipede is native to China, it was a chore for the researchers to find samples.

"The buffalo eat the centipede seed heads down. So we had to search for samples under small trees, in thorny bushes and on cliffs where they can't reach," he said. "We were able to find it along streambanks and trails and in rice patty levees where buffalo walk. Centipede grass was scattered all over China by the buffalos."

The researchers targeted collection sites in shady areas and along the coastal salt marshes. "These samples can be used to breed new varieties with shade and drought tolerance," Hanna said.

Each night Hanna turned his hotel room into a makeshift lab. He dried the grass samples on the lampshade, threshed the grass and careful placed the samples in labeled collection bags.

These collection bags were later inspected at the airport, taken to Washington, D.C., and returned to Hanna at his UGA lab in Tifton, Ga.

Germ plasm now available to all scientists

The UGA research team collected centipede samples from 53 sites in China. They were helped on the trip by Nanjiang Botanical Gardens researcher Jianxiu Liu, with whom they shared the collected samples.

"We now have germ plasm for our research and for the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) national seed bank," Hanna said. "And we have the Chinese people to thank for the success of our trip. They were very warm, cordial and friendly.

"Earl (Elsner) taught our hosts to say 'goober' in English because all the meals included fried peanuts," Hanna said. "And they served us the best-tasting fried peanuts I've ever had."

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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