Imagine! Quiet, backwoods Mississippi cemeteries sharing a common bond with the perfectly manicured home field of the World Series-champion Arizona Diamondbacks.
Grass, of course! But not just any old garden variety.
For more than two and a half decades, Mississippi State University scientists Jeff Krans and Wayne Philley searched high and low, east and west, front lawn and country cemetery for just the right sprigs of Bermuda grass. They could be found anywhere the prolific plant grows.
"When people saw us crawling around in old country cemeteries, they usually thought we were searching grave markers for genealogical research," Krans said. "In fact, we were collecting samples for our breeding program."
Krans, an agronomy professor in the department of plant and soil sciences, and Philley, a senior research assistant and departmental colleague, collaborated on a project that, to date, has yielded four Bermuda grass cultivars.
Patented through Mississippi State, the cultivars carry the research names of MS-Choice, MS-Express, MS-Pride, and MS-Supreme. MS-Choice is the current star of the turf grass lineup, though each of the four features distinct characteristics and can be found on home lawns, golf courses and other locations.
Krans said Choice's unique qualities are particularly well suited for gridirons like MSU's Scott Field, where it debuted in the early 1990s.
"With its broad leaves and tightly closed canopy, MS-Choice creates a dense biomass that provides a cushion of grass so football players are running on top of the grass rather than through it," Krans said. "The result is better traction for the players and less wear on the field."
This MSU-developed member of the plant family also has the dark green color most often desired for athletic fields. Its tolerance for shade was an equally important feature in being selected for the Diamondbacks' stadium, Philley said.
"Ballpark One Stadium in Phoenix (where the Diamondbacks play) has a retractable-dome, so the grass does not get as much sun as it would in an open field," he explained. "The grass' shade tolerance helps keep it attractive under those conditions."
About five years ago, MS-Choice grew beyond its Magnolia State origins when Mississippi State granted a license under the name Bull's Eye Bermuda to West Coast Turf, a widely known sports grass marketer with operations in Arizona, California and Nevada.
Krans said other stadiums now using MS-Choice include the Rose Bowl, Edison International Field (home field of the Anaheim Angels baseball team) and University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
At present, Krans and Philley are turning their attention to St. Augustine grass, that favorite of Southern homeowners. Despite moving into new fields, so to speak, the green-thumb duo continues searching for another winning Bermuda grass.
"We're still on the lookout for Bermuda grass with unique characteristics," Philley said as the two strolled through a cemetery near Starkville. "We never know when or where we might find another sprig with superior qualities."