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Burton, G.W. 1993. African grasses. p. 294-298. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), New crops. Wiley, New York.

African Grasses

Glenn W. Burton

    1. Annuals
    2. Perennials
    1. Bermudagrass, Cynodon spp. (L.)
    2. Buffelgrass, Cenchrus ciliaris L.
    3. Pangolagrass, Digitaria decumbens Stent
    4. Kleingrass, Panicum coloratum L.
    5. Weeping lovegrass, Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees
    6. Napiergrass, Pennisetum purpureum Schumach.
  4. Table 1

The grasses, Poaceae (Gramineae), are man's most useful family of plants. The cereal grasses, rice, wheat, maize, barley, oats, sorghum, and millet supply three-fourths of man's energy and over half of his protein. These, with many forage species provide the grain and forage that animals need to produce the meat, milk, and eggs that supplement the cereal diet of humans. Grasses feed the world. They also protect the soil from erosion, cover man's playing fields, and beautify his environment.

Grasses and herbivores evolved about the same time. Hyams (1971) believes that "Without the exceptional powers possessed by grasses to grow again after being eaten almost down to the roots, a large number of animal species, including nearly all farm animals could not have evolved." He says, "It is possible to argue that the astounding success of Homo sapiens as a species is ultimately due to the power possessed by grass to grow again after being eaten down by animals."

Grasses are cosmopolitan from the equator to the arctic circle. Wherever flowering plants will grow, grasses can be found. It is estimated that there are about 10,000 species of grasses in the world, grouped into 620 genera arranged in 25 tribes (Hubbard 1954). There are 173 genera found in South Africa, most of which are indigenous (Meredith 1955).

Grass tribes may be grouped as Panicoid grasses containing the tropical and subtropical species and Festacoid grasses containing the temperate species. The panicoid group contains most of the African grasses. The panicoid grasses (Bogdon 1977) fix carbon by the efficient C4 pathway of photosynthesis that has optimum temperatures of 30° to 40°C and optimum light intensities of 50 to 60 klx. The festucoid grasses use the C3 photosynthesis processes that optimizes at 15° to 20°C and 15 to 30 klx. With optimum light and temperature Panicoid grasses can fix 30 to 50 g dry matter m-2d-1 whereas Festucoid grasses can fix up to about 20 g dry matter m-2d-1. Panicoid grasses do not make use of this advantage under low temperatures and low light intensities.



Two annual grasses grown primarily for grain in Africa are pearl millet [Pennisetum glaucum (L.) R. Br.] and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor L.). Pearl millet, widely adapted, very drought tolerant and free of prussic acid glucosides, is the best annual summer grazing crop for the southeastern United States. Fifty years of genetic improvement have resulted in commercial F1 hybrids with greater leafiness, yielding 50% more forage and animal product than the old cattail types they replaced (Burton 1983). Sudangrass and sorghum-sudangrass hybrids usually outyield pearl millet on the heavier, more fertile soils. They contain prussic acid glucosides that can kill livestock grazing them. With proper management they can be grazed with little risk of animal loss from glucoside poisoning.


Other African grasses with sufficient forage potential to be cultivated behave as perennials. With the help of others (Bogdon 1977; Harlan 1976; Meredith 1955; Tainton et al. 1976), I have selected 16 of the most important perennial grasses for presentation in Table 1 using seven descriptors.


Bermudagrass, Cynodon spp. (L.)

Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers. is called bermudagrass in the United States because an early introduction came from the Bermuda Island. Other names include wiregrass, couchgrass, and devilgrass. C. dactylon is mentioned in early history. To the Hindu, it was a sacred grass because it supported their cattle. Graeco-Roman pharmacopeia described expressed juice from bermudagrass stolons as a diuretic and an astringent to stop bleeding (Harlan 1976).

Although bermudagrass originated in Africa, it is cosmopolitan today occurring in every tropical and temperate part of the world. Its seed producing ability and its woody stolons and rhizomes have made it a weed. When southern crops were grown with a man, a mule, and a plow, bermudagrass was the farmer's worst weed. Yet, it saved untold acres of soil from erosion and became the South's first and most widely grown pasture and turfgrass.

Bermudagrass is a highly variable species (Burton and Hanna 1985). One variant crossed with tall selected types from South Africa produced 5,000 hybrids, the best of which, after much testing became 'Coastal' bermudagrass, named for the Georgia Coastal Plain Experiment Station where it was bred. In numerous tests, 'Coastal' bermudagrass has yielded about twice as much as common bermudagrass. In a year with only half of the average rainfall, 'Coastal' yielded six times more than common. 'Coastal' bermudagrass crossed with a common bermudagrass from Berlin, Germany produced 'Tifton 44', the best of 3,500 F1 hybrids (Burton 1978). Because of its greater cold tolerance, 'Tifton 44' can be grown 160 km farther north than Coastal bermuda.

'Coastcross-1' bermudagrass, an F1 hybrid between 'Coastal' and a highly digestible bermudagrass from Kenya, yields no more dry matter but is 12% more digestible than 'Coastal' and gives 30 to 40% more average daily gains (ADGs) and liveweight gains (LWG) per unit area (Burton 1972). It is restricted to Florida and the tropics.

'Tifton 68', an F1 hybrid between PI 255450 and PI 293606 both from Kenya, is the most digestible bermudagrass in our collection of 500 introductions (Burton and Monson 1984). It is a hexaploid, 2n = 54.

'Callie' bermudagrass, a natural hybrid found in an old Soil Conservation Service grass nursery, yields well but lacks winterhardiness and is very susceptible to rust that reduces forage yield and digestibility.

'Tifton 78' bermudagrass, a hybrid between 'Tifton 44' and 'Callie', is immune to rust and is a little less winterhardy than 'Coastal' (Burton and Monson 1988). Compared with Coastal, it is taller, establishes easier, starts earlier in the spring and in a 3-year grazing test produced 36% more LWG/A. Fertilized with 168 kg/ha of N plus P and K, it annually produced 983 kg/ha of liveweight gain at a fertilizer cost of 11cents per kg of gain.

'Tifton 85' is a tall, coarse, dark green F1 hybrid between PI 290884 from South Africa and 'Tifton 68'. 'Tifton 85', 2n = 45, is sterile but its large stolons and rhizomes make vegetative propagation easy. In a three-year replicated grazing trial, 'Tifton 85' has produced 47% more liveweight gain than 'Tifton 78'. It will be released officially in 1992. It is a little less winter hardy than 'Tifton 78', but should survive most winters in Florida and the southern half of the gulf states.

Other vegetatively propagated bermudagrass cultivars include 'Grazer', 'Midland', 'Hardie', and 'Brazos'. 'Pasto Rico' and 'Tempre Verde', commercial seed propagated mixtures of common and a tall wild type, are inferior to 'Coastal' and soon revert to low yielding common bermudagrass.

Cynodon nlemfuensis Vandeyst usually called stargrass is taller and larger than C. dactylon (Harland 1976). Stargrass is highly variable, spreads by seed and stolons but lacks rhizomes. It is softer, more palatable and has a higher digestibility than common bermudagrass. Stargrasses usually contains prussic acid glucosides but reports of livestock poisoning are rare. It lacks winterhardiness and is limited to South Florida and South Texas.

Buffelgrass, Cenchrus ciliaris L.

Buffelgrass is a drought tolerant bunchgrass that produces forage for the livestock industry in Texas. Two higher yielding more winterhardy cultivars, 'Neuces' and 'Llano' have extended the northern range of this popular grass. They are the product of plant breeding made possible by the discovery of a sexual plant that could be crossed with apomictic introductions and release their variability (Bashaw 1980).

Pangolagrass, Digitaria decumbens Stent

Pangolagrass is a sterile stoloniferous natural hybrid of unknown parentage. It lacks winterhardiness and is restricted to the southern two-thirds of Florida (Bennett 1973) where it has been planted on 300,000 ha. It is palatable, highly digestible and is considered an excellent pasture grass. It is less tolerant of drought and continuous close grazing than bahiagrass and bermudagrass.

Kleingrass, Panicum coloratum L.

Kleingrass is a leafy bunchgrass that grows well on sandy to clay soils from south Texas to Oklahoma (Voight and MacLauchlan 1985). It is drought tolerant and grows earlier in the spring and later in the fall than many warm season grasses. Two cultivars 'Selection 75' and 'Verde' give good animal gains and tolerate heavy utilization. Seed shattering is a serious problem that limits its use. It occupies about 600,000 ha, most in central Texas.

Weeping lovegrass, Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees

Weeping lovegrass is a bunch grass with long, narrow dropping leaves and a mature height of 0.5 to 1.5 m (Voight and MacLauchlan 1985). It grows best on sandy soils from south Texas to northern Oklahoma where is occupies some 240,000 ha. Animal performance on weeping lovegrass has been poor unless it is given intensive management. It is readily established from seeds that are easy to produce. It reproduces by obligate apomixis that has blocked genetic improvement until recently.

Napiergrass, Pennisetum purpureum Schumach.

Napiergrass (2n = 28) is a robust perennial bunchgrass that may reach a height of 6 m. It grows on a wide range of well-drained soils and is drought tolerant. Its herbage can be killed with light frosts but underground parts can remain alive if the soil is not frozen. It reproduces sexually but seed size is small, seed yields are very poor, and seedlings are weak.

Thus, napiergrass is established from stem cuttings or crown divisions. If cut only once a year, napiergrass can produce more dry matter per unit area than any other crop that can be grown in the deep south, but cutting it twice a year at Ona, Florida reduced annual yields 70% (Burton 1986). Napiergrass cut once a year will produce more dry matter per unit of N and other fertilizer nutrients removed than other biomass crops.

Blaser et al. (1955) conducted a number of management experiments from 1938 to 1944 with napiergrass in Florida. They found napiergrass inferior to maize and sorghum as a silage crop. Its coarse stems made it a very poor hay crop to cure and handle. Fertilized with 67 kg/ha of N plus adequate P and K and grazed rotationally, napiergrass maintained a stand for 3 years, provided 235 steer days, gave ADGs of 0.71 kg and produced LWG of 414 kg/ha per year. Dairy cows did well on napiergrass fertilized and managed in the same manner.

Napiergrass breeding begun in 1936 produced the eyespot immune high-yielding 'Merkeron', the best of many hybrids between outstanding tall, selection No. 1 and a very leafy dwarf No. 208 (Burton 1990). A selfed progeny of 'Merkeron' contained a number of dwarfs, the best of which has been released in Florida as 'Mott' (Sollenberger et al. 1988).


Table 1. Selected list of the 16 most important African perennial grasses.

Potential future useu
Scientific name Common name Type of growthz Height (m) Reproduction methody Adaptationx Plantedw Genetic improvementv World USA
Andropogon gayanus Kunth Gamba B 1-3 S? WDtCs SV L 1 5
Brachiaria decumbens Stapf. Surinam SfS 0.3-0.6 A WCs VS O 3 5
Brachiaria mutica (Forsk.) Stapf. Para SfS 1-2 A? NDsCs V O 1 4
Cenchrus ciliaris L. Buffel BR 1-1.5 A WDtCs S M 1 2
Chloris gayana Kunth. Rhodes SfS 1-2 S WDtCt S M 2 4
Cynodon dactylon (L.) Pers. Bermuda SfSR 0.2-0.7 S WDtCt VS M 1 1
Cynodon nlemfuensis Vanderyst Star SfS 0.3-0.9 S WDtCs V S 2 2
Digitaria decumbens Stent Pangola SfS 0.4-0.8 V WDtCs V O 1 2
Eragrostis curvula (Schrad.) Nees Weeping love B 0.4-1.0 A WDtCt S S 1 2
Hyparrhenia rufa (Nees) Stapf Jaragua B 1-2 S WDtCs S L 3 4
Melinis minutiflora Beauv. Molasses B 0.6-1.0 S WDtCs S L 2 5
Panicum coloratum L. Klein BS 0.4-1.4 S WDtCs S M 3 2
Panicum maximum Jacq. Guinea B 0.5-4.5 A,S WDtCs S S 2 4
Pennisetum clandestinum Hochst. ex Chiov. Kikuyu SfSR 0.2-0.4 S NDtCs V L 4 5
Pennisetum purpureum Schumach. Napier B 2-6 S WDtCt V M 1 2
Setaria anceps Stapf ex Massey Setaria B 1-2 S WDtCs SV L 4 5
zType of growth: B = bunch, Sf = sod forming, S = stolons, R = rhizomes.
yReproduction method: S = sexual, A = apomictic.
xAdaptation: W = wide, N = narrow, D = drought, C = cold, t = tolerant, s = susceptible.
wPlanted: S = with seed, V = vegetatively.
vGenetic improvement: M = much, S = some, L = little, O = none.
uPotential future use: 1 = excellent, 5 = poor.

Last update April 15, 1997 aw