Previously underrated as a potential biofuel crop, prairie cordgrass has gained the interest of University of Illinois (U of I) crop scientists.

Because it is not a good forage crop, this native grass hasn’t been studied as extensively as switchgrass, big bluestem, Indiangrass and other energy crops, according to U of I researchers Lane Rayburn and D.K. Lee. Yet prairie cordgrass offers sturdy growth on marginal land, no invasiveness issues, good cold tolerance, and is usefulness for erosion control, they say.

“It’s a great plant,” says Rayburn. “We know how to control it – it gives good biomass. If I’m going to work with an energy crop, I want to bring something in that, environmentally and ecologically, I don’t have to worry about.”

Lee traveled around the country collecting more than 130 natural populations of prairie cordgrass to examine differences within the species. He, Rayburn and several colleagues at the Energy Biosciences Institute – a U of I partner – found several variations.

The South Dakota sample had eight sets of chromosomes, while the Illinois grass tended to have four. Then, at a single location in Illinois, the researchers discovered samples containing both four and six sets of chromosomes within the same population.

The six-set population had never been seen before and holds a lot of potential for biomass production, says Lee. They will continue to study the new cultivar, which the Energy Biosciences Institute hopes to patent for future biomass production.

Many conservationists are also interested in prairie cordgrass. “One of the characteristics of this grass is that it has a strong rhizome and root system,” explains Lee. That makes it good for erosion control and conservation, particularly in riparian areas, because it likes water.

The grass is also salt-tolerant. Lee planted it in western Texas fields no longer in crop production because they had been irrigated with salty groundwater. “It actually grew pretty well; the farmer was shocked,” he says.

It also has good cold tolerance. Although it is a warm-season grass, it starts growing in mid-March, much like a cool-season grass. Its growing season is longer than that of corn, allowing it to accumulate high biomass, the researchers add.