German plant taxonomist Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812) named zoysiagrass in honor of Karl von Zois (1756-1799), amateur plant collector from the Holy Roman Empire, who lived in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The journey of zoysiagrass from Asia to North America is a story of exploration and discovery, intrigue and an unsolved death, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In 1892, zoysiagrass seed first arrived in the U.S. by James B. Olcott (1830-1910), at Manchester, Conn. His job with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station was to collect grasses that could have an economic benefit. By 1885, he established the first “turf garden,” or turfgrass variety trial in the U.S. He collected grass species on trips to Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and from written requests to botanists and gardeners in other countries. Zoysia matrella seed delivered by mail from Yokohama, Japan, was first planted and established in U.S. soil in 1892.
Olcott was called “the Grass Man” since he was the best authority on grasses in his time. In 1912, industrialist F.W. Taylor bought Olcott’s turf garden and relocated it to his estate near Philadelphia for use as a golf course. Olcott served on the board of trustees for the Storrs School of Agriculture, which today is the University of Connecticut.
In 1894, John M.B. Sill (1831-1901), a U.S. diplomat in Korea, sent seed of Zoysia japonica to the USDA. After Korea, Sill served on the board of regents at the University of Michigan.
We know about Olcott and Sill’s zoysiagrasses because of Frank Lamson-Scribner (1851-1938). He worked in the USDA’s Division of Botany and later served as head of the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Experiment Station. He was author of “American Grasses” (1897, USDA), with 331 pages of descriptions and illustrations of grass species in the U.S.
In 1898, official record keeping of plant introductions was established by the USDA’s Office of Seed Plant Introduction. So, the first official entry of zoysiagrass in the U.S. was by Reverend W.M. Baird in 1901. He was a Korean missionary and assigned to collect economically important plants for the USDA. His two varieties of “Korean lawn grasses” were later reclassified as Zoysia japonica.
In 1902, David G. Fairchild, Ph.D., (1869-1954) first head of the Office of Seed Plant Introduction, traveled to Asia, collected various Zoysia species and introduced more than 200,000 plants and varieties into the U.S. He served on the board of regents of the University of Miami from 1929 to 1933. Kampong Garden, his 9-acre estate in Miami, contains plants from his global collection trips and is open to visitors.
Frank N. Meyer (1875-1918) was hired by Fairchild as a plant explorer to find drought-resistant plant varieties suitable for dry-land farming. In 1905, Meyer began his 13-year journey throughout Asia, where he sent back over 2,500 plant varieties. He submitted zoysiagrasses from North Korea in 1906 and from China in 1907.
His body was found in the Yangtze River in China, where he was traveling, in 1918. The circumstances of his death are still a mystery, and a Hollywood movie would probably sensationalize Meyer as “plant explorer by day, secret spy by night.” His travels are described in “Frank N. Meyer, Plant Hunter in Asia” (1984, Iowa State University Press). Because Meyer was so well respected, the Frank N. Meyer Medal for Plant Genetic Resources was established in “recognition of his contributions to the plant germplasm collection and use in the United States and his dedication and service to humanity … ” The award is presented annually by the Crop Science Society of America. Zoysiagrass seed collected in Korea in 1930 was further propagated and eventually released in 1951 as the variety Meyer zoysiagrass in his honor.
Of note, in 1912, Charles V. Piper (1867-1926), an agrostologist with the USDA’s Division of Forage Plants, introduced Zoysia matrella from the Philippines in 1912.
There have been others who collected zoysiagrasses from all over the world, but these early botanists, agrostologists, adventurers, explorers and scholars were the first to bring Zoysia japonica, Zoysia matrella and Zoysia pacifica into the U.S.
Source: Patton, A.J., B.M. Schwartz and K.E. Kenworthy. 2017. Zoysiagrass (Zoysia spp.) history, utilization, and improvement in the United States: A review. Crop Science 57:S37-S73 (https://doi.org/10.2135/cropsci2017.02.0074).
Mike Fidanza, Ph.D., is a professor of plant and soil science in the Division of Science, Berks Campus, at Pennsylvania State University in Reading, Pa. He is a 20-year member of GCSAA.