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The greenhouses at Oklahoma State University facilitated research and development in controlled environments. (Photo by Grant McClure)

Turf for Tomorrow

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Media Contact: Kristin Knight | Communications and Marketing Manager | 405-744-1130 |

Grass. The earth’s carpet. A plant best known for covering soil and giving dads a reason to buy new lawn mowers.

However, some uses of grass require the plant to perform on some of the biggest competitive stages in the world. These specialty grasses require innovative research, extension and education through universities.

“The turfgrass science and turfgrass management programs in the Oklahoma State University Ferguson College of Agriculture work in harmony to push the limits of what something as simple as grass can become,” said Dennis Martin, horticulture and landscape architecture professor and turfgrass extension and research specialist. “The success of the two programs has made OSU one of the top turfgrass schools in the country.”

For the past 33 years, Martin has filled a leadership role in pushing OSU’s turfgrass program to the top. Martin has an OSU Extension and research joint appointment that includes a variety of responsibilities within the turfgrass program.

“My favorite part of my job here at OSU is there is always something new,” Martin said. “Whether I’m doing research, communicating with stakeholders, or advising the development team, I enjoy the different tasks of each day.

“Developing new varieties of turfgrass has played a major role in OSU’s rise to prominence in the turfgrass industry,” Martin said. “When you’re constantly pushing the industry forward with new varieties, people begin to notice.”

One of the key players in those developments is plant and soil sciences professor Yanqi Wu.

Prior to coming to the U.S. in 2001, Wu worked at Sichuan Agriculture University in China. After obtaining his doctorate from OSU in 2004, he was offered full citizenship as a professor in 2006.

Just four years later, Wu released his first turfgrass variety. Since then, he has contributed to the development of five new varieties of turfgrass as a part of the OSU Turfgrass Team.

One of those varieties is Tahoma 31, an interspecific hybrid grass developed through combining common Bermuda grass and African Bermuda grass, Wu said.

The Tahoma 31 variety was released in 2017 and gained popularity because of its beauty, drought resistance, traffic tolerance, and ability to survive winter conditions.

Tahoma 31 has been implemented into several football stadiums across the country, Wu said.

At the college level, the University of Arkansas’ Tahoma 31 football field received the college football Field of the Year Award in 2022.

In the NFL, the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens use Tahoma 31 for its wear resistance and cold tolerance.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and the USA Softball Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City also use Tahoma 31.

Golf courses in Greece, Australia, and the U.S. plant Tahoma 31 on tees, roughs, collars, and driving ranges.

The OSU Turfgrass Team has developed other varieties of turfgrass such as Latitude 36 and Northbridge.

The Washington Commanders, Texas Rangers and FC Dallas use Latitude 36 in their stadiums. The Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Kansas City Chiefs use Northbridge.

Wu’s favorite part of his research is creating new grasses, he said.

“I enjoy getting to come to work every day knowing I’m changing the world in a positive way,” Wu said. “At the end of the day, I get to say I’m creating new grasses that will benefit society in some way.”

With the development of a new turfgrass variety, working out the kinks is a part of the process and involves multiple departments.

Nathan Walker, an entomology and plant pathology professor and OSU Extension specialist for turf disease and pest diagnosis, helps with turfgrass development. He focuses his work on a fungal disease in Bermuda grass called “Spring Dead Spot.”

While the name “Spring Dead Spot” may not sound familiar, most people have seen the disease at work without knowing it. It causes Bermuda grass to develop dead patches and reduces the plants’ ability to survive in winter.

Walker discovered the different species of Bermuda grass infected by the fungus that causes Spring Dead Spot, known as Ophiosphaerella, have different responses to the fungus. If the grass does not recognize the fungus is present, the disease will not activate, and the grass won’t have any consequences from it, he said.

As a pioneer of Spring Dead Spot research, Walker speaks at conferences about the disease and the progress being made at OSU. His research has taken him to every continent besides Antarctica and Africa.

In June 2023, Walker will represent the Ferguson College of Agriculture and the entomology and plant pathology department while speaking at the Australian Sports Turf conference.

“In a way, we’ve pulled the curtain back on this disease,” Walker said. “When I first started, there was little to no knowledge on the specific biology of Spring Dead Spot. We’ve forwarded the understanding of the disease, which has helped us in the development of possible solutions.”

Spring Dead Spot is considered a nuisance in any setting; however, playing fields made of turfgrass consider the disease public enemy No. 1, he said.

“The dead patches caused by the disease can create divots, affecting player performance, ball roll and aesthetics,” Walker said.

The goal of Walker’s research is to develop genetically resistant Bermuda grass rather than using pesticides.

“This disease is constantly having to be addressed in areas where you have human interaction,” Walker said. “You have athletes and hobbyists constantly in contact with the grass. The fewer pesticides we can use in these areas the better the health of the people utilizing the playing field, regardless of the sport.”

In addition to Martin, Wu and Walker, the OSU Agriculture Turfgrass Team includes a bigger group of professionals on various projects.

The newest members are Mingying Xiang, an assistant professor, and Shuhao Yu, a research assistant professor. Both Xiang and Yu joined the horticulture and landscape architecture department in 2022.

Justin Moss, horticulture and landscape architecture department head and professor, and Charles Fontainer, horticulture and landscape architecture associate professor, complete the turfgrass team and have helped invent several varieties.

OSU’s turfgrass program has the prowess to maintain the university’s top-tier reputation across the globe, Martin said. Whether developing new varieties like Tahoma 31 or finding cures for 100-year-old grass killers, the bar is high, he added.

Through research and development, the turfgrass interdisciplinary program at OSU will continue to push the limits of what grass can become, Martin said.

Story By: Grant McClure | Cowboy Journal

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