A bite of grassy history

Grass species each have their individual characteristics. Some have strong roots, others have a high nutritional value. Over the centuries, as people explored the world, grasses have travelled the world in the form of seeds.

After Columbus set foot in America in 1492, England, France, Spain and the Netherlands colonised ‘the promised land’ in the late 16th century. For establishment, travel and war, horse power was needed. Literally shiploads of horses and cattle were sent across the Atlantic to provide this horse power.

Of course their fuel was required as well. This fuel was provided as grass and grain. New grass species were introduced and their settlement has been documented.

In the 17th century, Scandinavian settlers introduced a grass into New Hampshire, USA. This grass is originally native to most of Europe with exception of the Mediterranean region. It was later found, seeded and produced by John Herd, leading to its name ‘Herd grass’. Herd promoted it as feed for cattle and horses in New England and South East Canada in the early 1700’s. It is believed that about a decade later the grass was renamed after Timothy Hanson, a Swedish immigrant who introduced and sold the grass from New England to Baltimore, Maryland. ‘Timothy grass’, also known as ‘cat’s tail’.

Around 1750 another grass was introduced to North America. This grass bearing two names is native to Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. Its English name, ‘Cocksfoot’ or ‘Cock’s foot’, is descriptive of the characteristic shape of the grass’s seed head. In North America it is often found to grow in the shade of orchards, which likely led to its American name ‘Orchard Grass’. This grass and Timothy grass are the two most popular grasses fed to horses and are often found in mixtures for horse meadows.

Meadow Fescue/English Bluegrass, a grass native to parts of Europe and Asia, travelled soon after Cocksfoot from England to North America [1]. It became the most popular forage-providing type of grass at the time [2]. Almost a century later smooth Bromegrass was introduced into the US from Hungary [3].

On the opposite side of the planet, George Chewings popularised a specie of Hard Fescue which as a result was named after him [4]. Chewings’ Fescue spread out over the islands of New Zealand and Australia and in the early 1910’s was exported to England [5].

Tall Fescue was introduced into the USA in the late 19th century and became increasingly more popular as forage for horses and cattle. After all, it did have a higher yield and disease resistance than Meadow Fescue [2]. It even became so popular that it took the place of Meadow Fescue in the forage industry. The most prevalent specie of Tall Fescue grown in the United States is called Kentucky 31. Its name is related to its seed collection in 1931 on a farmland in Kentucky, by professor Fergus from the University of Kentucky [6,7]. With continuing breeding programs new varieties of Meadow Fescue have arisen – with higher yield, improved nutritional value and higher disease resistance – putting it back on the map [8].

During this period, in the 1920’s, Creeping Red Fescue was introduced to Canada and Alberta from Czechoslovakia. The grass established and grew successfully in Olds (Central Alberta) in the 1930’s. James Murray created the variety ‘Olds’ here which has strong, creeping roots, is tolerant of drought, winter-hardy and disease free [9]. During the second world war the strong roots kept the soil together under high traffic at military bases. For this characteristic, together with its fast growth and establishment, Creeping Red Fescue became wanted all around the globe – exports numbers increased from about 50,000 kg in 1942 to 2,500,000 kg in 1945 [9].

The number of grass varieties is ever-increasing. Breeding programs and DNA techniques can almost make grasses tailor-made to individual wishes. Despite the diversity of varieties, there are many fundamental characteristics of grasses that can still be distinguished between species.

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[1] Fact sheet: Meadow Fescue, Forage Information System (FIS) Oregon

[2] Buckner RC, Powell JB, Frakes RV (1979) 'Historical development'. From the book 'Tall Fescue', by Buckner RC and Bush LC ASA-CSSA-SSSA, Agronomy Monograph No. 20, pp 1-8

[3] Fact sheet: Smooth Bromegrass, Forage Information System (FIS) Oregon

[4] 'Fine Fescue for Lawns', Colorado Master Gardener Program (CMG) Garden Notes via Colorado State University Extension

[5] 'Chewings' Fescue', Auckland Star, Volume XLV, Issue 44, 20 February 1914, Page 11

[6] Garry D. Lacefield and Jimmy Henning, November 1986 'Alternatives for Fungus Infected Tall Fescue'

[7] 'Kentucky 31 Tall Fescue History', North Carolina State University

[8] Brink, G.E., M.E. Casler and N.P. Martin. 2010. 'Meadow fescue, tall fescue and orchardgrass response to defoliation management', published in Agronomy Journal 102:667-674

[9] Alberta - Agriculture and Rural Development. History of Creeping Red Fescue Production in the Peace River Region of Canada.