The biofuels research initiative at the University of Tennessee has focused on switchgrass as a fuel stock. Switchgrass (Panicum sp.) is not new to the Arboretum and has been little known feature for many years. The hillside just beyond the dwarf conifer collection was planted with a mixture of native warm season grasses in1994, following the loss of a stand of pine trees from the tornado. The hillside was too steep to mow and was left barren after the clean-up. Evaluating this situation, a decision was made to plant grasses to demonstrate their conservation and wildlife benefit. Managing these grasses is easy. Each year we have simply used a controlled fire to burn the field, thus favoring these fire adapted grass species. Over time switchgrass has gained the advantage over the other grass species and now dominates this site.
Our humble hillside planting was far from what folks are thinking about for the commercial production of switchgrass for biofuels. There is something more afoot that makes this field of major interest to our UT researchers - rust and fungus diseases! It seems that switchgrass is not as disease-free as previously thought, and we just happen have a great (if you can call it "great") example of diseased switchgrass!
In addition to commercial varieties of switchgrass used for biofuel, there are several clones of switchgrass propagated for their ornamental characteristics. It has been observed that some of the ornamental clones show signs of resistance to diseases common to switchgrass. Our researchers have devised a scheme to challenge the ornamental switchgrass, and some other grass species, by planting them in an environment where the diseases are obviously present.
The UT Arboretum is one of the University's test locations for switchgrass disease. Over 25 different clones of ornamental grasses were planted in the vicinity of the hillside switchgrass area to begin this research initiative. Although arboreta are mostly about woody plants, we welcome this new feature as an example of how we can play a role in bettering our lives through science, and at the same time relish
in the beauty of plants.