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Eastern Gamagrass Surviving Drought By
Sean Adams August 26, 1997
Patches of green in a brown field have put smiles on the faces of
Charles Foy and Donald Krizek. The two Agricultural Research Service scientists
are excited about eastern gamagrass. This native species was overgrazed into
oblivion decades ago--but rediscovered by a Missouri farmer in 1980 during a
This new old grass, a perennial that grows as high as its
relative corn, is again surviving a severe drought this summer in parched
fields at ARS Beltsville (Md.) Agricultural Research Center. Only about
an inch of rain fell from the first of July to mid-August, but the gamagrass
has been cut twice. It yielded 6,600 pounds of 14- percent-protein hay per
acre, on par with alfalfa. Surrounding corn and soybean plants dried up. But
even after two cuttings, some gamagrass is still more than a foot high and
shows no drought symptoms.
What gives eastern gamagrass an edge when water is scarce? The
scientists say the keys are air-filled root passages called aerenchyma
[pronounced air-ENK-a-ma]. With aerenchyma, roots can penetrate so deep they
draw water that shallow-rooted plants cant reach. Eastern gamagrass roots
extend down as far as 7 feet, despite a compacted claypan, acid soil, and
low-lying areas prone to flooding that would kill many crops.
Foy and Krizek, with colleagues Jerry Ritchie and Ali Sadeghi, plan
further studies to see if eastern gamagrass deep roots can loosen
compacted soils and provide channels for roots of other crops. They also want
to test the grass in buffer strips to reduce soil erosion.
To see a photo of Beltsvilles eastern gamagrass on the World
Wide Web, point your browser to:
A feature story on aerenchyma appears in the August Agricultural
Research magazine. Its on the web at:
Scientific contact: ARS
Climate Stress Laboratory,
Beltsville, Md.--Donald Krizek, phone (301) 504- 5324, fax 504-6626,
Charles Foy, phone (301) 504-5522, fax 504- 7521.