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Buffalo Grass: Ready for Prime Time?

Buffalo grass, Buchloë dactyloides (or Bouteloua dactyloides according to the USDA PLANTS database), was named for the American buffalo that lived on it. One of the predominant grasses of the vast short grass prairie of the Great Plains, its native range stretched between the Rocky Mountains to the west and the tall grass prairies to the east and from northern Mexico into the prairie provinces of Canada.

The most desirable characteristic of buffalo grass is its drought tolerance. No other turfgrass can get by with so little water, although information on exactly how much it requires and how much it tolerates varies widely. According to the USDA, buffalo grass requires a minimum of 7 inches of rainfall per year. Since the average rainfall in St. Louis is 38.84 inches per year, and the average rainfall in June, July, and August is about 3¾ inches per month, buffalo grass should survive in the St. Louis area without additional irrigation and should remain green all summer.

Despite its noted drought tolerance, it will also tolerate occasional flooding. Emerald View Turf Farms in O’Fallon, Missouri reports that buffalo grass survived 31 days under water during the Great Flood of 1993.

Fertility requirements are also less than most other turfgrasses. One to two pounds of slow-release nitrogen per year, applied during the growing season, is the most it requires, except when grown in extremely sandy soils.

Since it spreads by stolons, buffalo grass can fill in bare areas, a desirable characteristic for a turfgrass, but the stolons can also invade flower beds and walkways requiring more edging than a bunch-type grass, such as tall fescue.

Buffalo grass is usually dioecious, meaning that it has separate male and female plants. This is important when selecting cultivars to use as a lawn grass. Female plants bear their flowers out of sight, just above ground level, while male plants produce flowers that rise above the leaves. This increases the height of male plants, making the grass look uneven, and decreasing its aesthetic value. Female plants may therefore need less mowing than male plants and may be more desirable from a maintenance standpoint, but both are low-growing compared to other turfgrasses. Cultivars are usually only six inches high fully grown.

Like Bermuda and zoysia, buffalo grass is a warm season grass. In the St. Louis area, it will be brown and dormant in the winter, although it does stay green for about a month longer than zoysia. Unlike Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue, it will grow vigorously through the heat and dryness of mid-summer when unirrigated Kentucky bluegrass and tall fescue will turn brown and go dormant.

A major disadvantage of buffalo grass is its color. Like many drought-tolerant plants, its leaves have a protective, waxy coating that makes it appear grayish-green rather than the dark green of other turfgrasses. Although some of the newer cultivars are darker in color than the species, even these, thus far, do not approach the lush green of Kentucky bluegrass.

Light requirements can also limit the usefulness of buffalo grass. It requires a minimum of 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight a day. Anything less will yield poor quality turf and more weeds. Because of its gray-green color, mixing it with more shade tolerant turfgrasses, like creeping red fescues or chewing fescues, is not really feasible because the color contrast would be too stark. A different ground cover might be in order for these situations.

Weed control is important in maintaining a buffalo grass lawn because buffalo grass does not compete well with other plants. It dominated the short grass prairies because it will grow where other plants cannot survive. Herbicides labeled for use on buffalo grass do exist, but buffalo grass is very sensitive to many herbicides, including pre-emergents, so care must be taken when selecting and using them. Some pre-emergents labeled for use on buffalo grass include Dimension, Gallery, Surflan, XL. As for post-emergents, buffalo grass is very sensitive to 2,4-D, a common herbicide found in many formulations for broad-leafed weed control. Since buffalo grass goes dormant in cool weather, glyphosate can be used to control summer and winter annual weeds as well as many perennial weeds, including dandelions, yellow nutsedge, and grassy weeds. It is important that the grass is completely dormant before applying glyphosate.

So, is buffalo grass ready for prime time? Is it ready for use as a lawn grass?

In certain situations buffalo grass is an ideal choice. These include full sun areas that are difficult to mow, full sun areas that are difficult to irrigate, and erodible areas in full sun. Homeowners should consider the advantages and disadvantages and decide for themselves. Some disadvantages are: 1) dormancy in cool weather, 2) gray-green color, 3) shade intolerance, 4) intolerance of foot traffic. Some advantages are: 1) needs less water (drought tolerance), 2) needs less mowing (or none), 3) needs less fertilizer, 4) needs less care overall.

For instructions on establishing a buffalo grass lawn, refer to the University of Missouri guidesheet G6730, “Establishment and Care of Buffalograss Lawns,” by John H. Dunn and Brad S. Fresenburg.

Buffalo grass seed, which will yield both male and female plants, can be obtained by request from many seed companies, garden centers and nurseries or by contacting one of the following seed companies:

Belleville Seed House
3400 South Illinois St.
Belleville, IL 62220
618-235-2626 or 800-873-3383

G. R. Robinson Seed & Service Co.
8674 Olive St.
St. Louis, MO 63132

Buffalo grass sod (and possibly plugs or sprigs), which comprises only female plants, can be obtained from Emerald View Turf Farms (www.EmeraldViewTurfFarms.com). They have one location in Illinois and two locations in Missouri:

In Illinois:
P.O. Box 215
Columbia, IL 62236

In Missouri:
1722 Highway 79
O'Fallon, MO 63366

12202 U.S. Highway 63
Jefferson City, MO 65101

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