Forty Acres Field Guide: Switchgrass

UT is an urban university in the heart of the city, yet the campus and its environs teem with fascinating plants and animals—from tropical parakeets to the world’s weirdest cactus.


(Panicum virgatum)

As scientific research subjects go, switchgrass is not the most convenient. This giant Texas grass can reach 8 feet in height and consume an entire square meter of space. Its sheer size makes it cumbersome to manage, and when UT researchers harvest the plants at the end of each summer, they invariably fail to squeeze the enormous grasses into 30-gallon Home Depot lawn bags.

“Switchgrass is very unwieldy and not the easiest plant to work with,” says associate biology professor Christine Hawkes. “But it’s important.”

At UT’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Hawkes and her research team have grown a switchgrass forest inside a greenhouse. They believe that fungi living inside this cumbersome species could hold the key to understanding how plants survive or die in drought—a question that seems more pertinent than ever as Texas faces a hot, dry future.

“It’s very likely that we’re headed for a drier world,” Hawkes says. “So we want to understand how plants respond to drought and how we could ameliorate some of its effects.”

All plants have fungi living symbiotically inside them, Hawkes explains. When a fungus grows on a plant’s roots, it gets sugar and the plant gets help absorbing nutrients. Different fungi can have varying effects on plants; Hawkes is searching for those fungi that will help the switchgrass resist drought. In a sterile greenhouse, her team has tested 20 fungi under a wide range of weather conditions.

Results aren’t in yet, but the research holds long-term potential for agriculture. Some researchers have even suggested a fungal fertilizer that could inoculate plants against drought. “In the long run, this kind of project can help us grow food and maintain our lawns,” Hawkes says. “Ecology matters.”

To read the rest of the Forty Acres Field Guide, click here.

Photo by Christine Hawkes.


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