New Research Project at Sampson Extension

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A new research project installed at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Sampson County Center is aimed at helping homeowners, landscapers, turf industry professionals, and sod growers control damage to lawns and turf by ground pearls. Ground pearls are scale insects that attack the roots of all species of grasses just below the soil line.

Brad Hardison, N.C. Cooperative Extension, Sampson County Center horticulture agent and extension director said ground pearls are a serious problem in all types of turf in Sampson County. Centipede, St. Augustine, Bermuda, and Zoysia are commonly infested with ground pearls. They attach to plant roots and suck plant sap, nutrients, and cell contents through a modified, straw-like mouthpart which causes the plants to die. The damaged grass will turn yellow, wilt, and die in a season. Areas usually start off small and unnoticeable, but grow over time into large dead spots within the lawn. These scale insects thrive in the sandy, warm soils that we have in Sampson County.

NC State, Clemson, and other land grant universities have been working on control methods for ground pearls for over 50 years with little success. There are products labeled for ground pearl management, but they are not effective against a ground pearl infestation. These products typically target newly hatched or young ground pearls, but do little against the adult population. Adult ground pearls form a layer of wax on the outside of their bodies creating a “pearl” coating called a cyst. This cyst protects ground pearls from adverse environmental conditions, natural enemies, and insecticides.

A team of NC State researchers including Dr. Susana Milla-Lewis (Turfgrass Breeding & Genetics Professor), Esdras Carbajal Melgar (NC State Research Technician), and Brad Hardison (N.C. Cooperative Extension, Sampson County Center) are investigating a different route of management for ground pearls by utilizing aggressive growing cultivars of grass species. The turfgrass breeding program at NC State and other universities have discovered several new cultivars of turfgrass that are very aggressive growers. Observations have been noted that these new cultivars of grasses can outgrow the ground pearl damage which makes their presence in turf less noticeable. A trial was developed at the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Sampson County Center to test this theory.

The three cultivars of grasses that we have installed include Lobo Zoysiagrass, Tiftuf Bermudagrass, and El Toro Zoysiagrass. Lobo Zoysiagrass was released in 2021 from Milla-Lewis’s breeding program. It is a medium-fine Zoysiagrass that is well adapted for home lawns, commercial landscapes, roadsides, and golf courses. “It’s truly a unicorn” said Milla-Lewis. It is fast to establish, drought-tolerant, and maintains good color and quality under very low inputs. Tiftuf Bermudagrass was developed and released by the University of Georgia turfgrass breeding program. Tiftuf is drought tolerant, has superior wear tolerance, greens up earlier, and stays green later in the season than other Bermuda species. According to Dr. Grady Miller of NC State University, Tiftuf has a combination of drought tolerance, aggressive growth, and superior fall color over other Bermuda cultivars. Tiftuf can be used in golf courses, home and commercial lawns, and sports fields. El Toro Zoysia grass was developed at the University of California-Riverside and released in 1985. This is an older cultivar of Zoysiagrass, but still relevant for this trial. El Toro is an aggressive grower that is drought resistant. t is also more shade tolerant that other cultivars of warm season grass, which makes it a good choice for homeowners, golf courses, and commercial landscapes.

The 3-year trial will help quantify if any of these grasses will outgrow the ground pearl damage and be deemed ground pearl “tolerant”. Hardison stated that this project, if successful, could give homeowners options of having turfgrass in their landscape if it is infested with ground pearls. “Nearly 80% of all our lawn issues in the county is dealing with ground pearls – from Plain View, to Harrells, and Turkey to Roseboro – no part of the county is immune.”

Information on ground pearls

Information on Lobo Zoysia grass

Ground pearl