A neatly trimmed lawn is perhaps the most iconic emblem of the American suburban lifestyle. Many people regard a cool patch of green as an essential ingredient of a civilized landscape, a symbol of serenity and order. Whether your favorite turf is in the form of a ball field, playground or a merely decorative feature of your own front yard, lawns are living communities of plants and animals, as well as recreational havens and design elements.
The most common species join local lawns and playing fields is Bermuda Grass (Cynodon dactylon), a tough turf that was imported from southern Africa centuries ago to enhance grazing pastures. In the U.S., the grass is named after islands in the mid-Atlantic ocean that are presumed to have been a stepping stone to their introduction to North America. It is also abundant in southern India where it is called arugampul or doob and has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal herb to aid in healing everything from rashes to diabetes.
Also known as couch grass, devil grass, wire grass and dogtooth grass, this heat-loving plant is both celebrated and loathed for being hearty enough to survive the scorching hot and arid climate of Phoenix. In the same aisles of garden supply centers that sell 50# bags of Bermuda grass seed, there are also multiple chemical treatments available to attempt killing it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on which side you are on, Bermuda grass is extremely persistent, partly due to the facts that roots can drill down more than two meters into the earth and that small fragments of grass can propagate into full plants within weeks. However, Bermuda grass is not tolerant of cold, hence an annual ritual of thatching and over-seeding with ryegrass is practiced every fall by those who wish to toil away at watering, weeding and mowing all year round for the pleasures that green grass provides. While the leave so Bermuda will wither and turn brown through colder months, the roots remain very much alive but dormant, ready to spring forth when soil temperatures rise again.
Even in perfectly manicured lawns, there is always more growing between the blades than the favored type of grass. Dozens of plant species thrive on the moisture and fertilizer that lawn cultivation provides. Among them are dandelions, spurge, chickweed, pigweed, lawn parsley and mallow. Most people call the interlopers "weeds." On a professional playing field, such varied textures may cause interference in the game, but if your main aim is aesthetics, you may want to consider nurturing a plush carpet of kidney weed (Dichondra repens) or cheerful heart-shaped leaves and bright yellow flowers of wood sorrel (Oxalis corniculata). And everyone loves searching for good luck in a patch of clover!
Lawns also attract wildlife, both predators and prey. Cottontails feast on the grass; owls, coyotes and bobcats feast on cottontails. The larvae or caterpillars of furry orange butterflies called "fiery skippers" chew on the leaves, attracting all kinds of birds that forage for juicy grubs. Even more birds relish the times of year when people scatter fresh grass seed to primp up a sparse lawn. Numerous other species of uninvited grasses also make their homes in Bermuda turf. If left un-mown, a lawn can rapidly become a thigh high meadow full of wildflowers and insects. In Africa, Bermuda grass is part of the vast savannah that supports herds of rhinos an impala. Of course, this is not what we strive for in suburbia, which is why I've chosen to trade in my patch of Bermuda for artificial turf!