To identify bermuda grass, does a homeowner have to look up the meaning of ligule, sheath, auricle and spikelet?
Not here. Breathe easy. Those technical terms are useful, but I’m betting the general public wants an easy way to identify the notorious bermuda weed in their yard.
You just want to know for sure what you’re going to kill, right? So let’s talk practical, not scientific. Pictures of bermuda grass and its imitators are helpful, but not always conclusive, because of different growth stages and growing conditions.
Want some relevant ways to determine if this common invasive grass is the pest encroaching on your lawn and garden paradise?
We’ll consider the things you may have already observed, plus some items that you can determine with a bit of inspection that doesn’t require keeping a dictionary handy.
The knowledge you gain about bermuda grass will be very helpful in understanding all the aspects of controlling it effectively, and killing it when possible.
One note, these comments will refer to the common, ordinary, almost everywhere kind (including Couch Grass dealt with by our friends 'Down Under'), rather than hybrid varieties of Bermuda, unless specified at the time.
(Editor's Note: The following article will also display photos in the future. Until that project is completed, check out the Photo Gallery of Bermuda Grass.
Bermuda grass is a perennial plant, meaning it doesn’t die after one season, like an annual plant. The original plant stays alive, and will continue to grow each year, even if it goes dormant at some point.
Bermuda is a warm-season grass and goes dormant, or stops growing, in cold weather. The colder it gets, the greater the likelihood it will turn completely brown. In places with a moderate winter it may turn only slightly brown.
The plant slows down putting out new leaf blades as the nights get colder. The latest batch of leaves seem smaller than normal. As the older leaf blades die and turn brown, they and the stem become more obvious than in the summer when all the new growth flourishes.
In some areas, like Southern California in mild years, it may keep a green tint all winter, but the color is more of a grey tone, not looking as bright as in the summer. But even if it stays somewhat green, it will grow minimally in length, or not at all.
The color will vary greatly with common bermuda, depending on how much sun and water it gets, and if it gets enough nutrients. In some areas, with some strains of common bermuda, the color can tend toward a bluish-green color.
But most bermuda grass, with an ample supply of all three factors, will be a deep, dark green color. Deprived of any of them, the color fades lighter, and can have that grayish tint also seen when going into dormancy. Compare that with typical lawn grass varieties which turn yellowish if they don’t get enough nitrogen.
If you have bermuda invading your lawn, its color can be two-toned, depending on how you mow, and the habitat where it is growing. If your mower is set quite high, or if the bermuda is growing in a shady area, the leaf blades will be further apart on the stem. The stem’s whitish or creamy color will be more noticeable than it is in a low-mowed lawn in full sun. The overall effect can be that of a two-toned or mottled look.
Many people are aware that bermuda grass sends out runners -- the main reason it gets deemed an invasive weed. Long, long runners are typical. Runners (STOLONS) don’t just make a run for the border in a single, straight line, however.
At regular intervals, they form a joint (or node) which becomes like a traffic intersection. Side shoots will head out from these joints, often two or three of them, each one becoming a new runner on a path to stardom.
As that happens, each joint also puts out new roots that head into the ground to form a new supply channel for water and food. Once these roots get down a bit, a new plant has been created which will survive on its own if the runner gets cut, separating junior from the mother plant.
If there is little or no competition from lawn grasses or neighboring weeds, all bermuda tends to grow low and flat. Near to the original plant, the side shoots continue to spread, expand, and form even more shoots, until an area is covered with a thick mat. This dense patch is very effective at eliminating competition.
With other strong plants nearby, or diminished sunlight, or minimal water, the bermuda grass is less effective with its territorial dominance. It remains thin, and concentrates its efforts into extending the runners farther away, hoping to find better growing conditions.
With extremely dense competition from broadleaf weeds, bermuda will reach for the sky, trying to get its share of sun, but consequently, it will not be rooting its runners as they grow up.
It is not unusual to see the runners make their way across a mulch-covered flower bed with stems so long that leaf blades or joints are a foot or more apart from each other, and they have not tried to take root.
But in better conditions, the visible stem has less than an inch showing at any point, and leaf blades are plentiful. Two specimens can be so different they appear to be totally unique weeds.
This ability to spread by stolons is not unique to bermuda. It is also characteristic of St, Augustine grass, zoysia, centipede, creeping bentgrass, buffalo grass, and kikuyu grass. To a lesser degree, even crabgrass can put out a runner of sorts, and we’ll discuss that later.
You all know what roots look like. Fibrous, slender threads extending from the base of any plant, heading down after water and food. Bermuda Roots? No problem! But...
Bermuda also has thick underground stems that look like a fat root. YES, A Problem! So let’s use and remember another proper term. Sorry about that.
RHIZOMES (buried stems) will be your biggest nightmare, and they have earned the right to be called by their actual name.
Rhizome. Rhymes with Ripe Zone. Ripe for trouble. Read it and weep.
Rhizomes act like roots, in that one function is to store food for the plant, like tubers do for a potato plant. Skinny, endless tubers. (I wonder if any one eats them? They might solve the world hunger problem, they are that prevalent.)
Rhizomes also function as runners below ground. They chart new territory, going where no root has ever gone! Well, not exactly, but unlike normal roots, they tend to grow horizontally, looking for greener pastures, which they are very willing to start.
Wherever they can, rhizomes form joints, just like the upper stolons. At a joint, a stem heads upwards and if it successfully breaks above ground it immediately starts to grow leaf blades. At this time, roots will start to sprout from the joint, and a new plant is created.
Also at a joint, additional rhizomes will branch off just as the runners above ground have done.(Remember this if you try to control bermuda grass by digging it out. The joints easily break, allowing smaller pieces of rhizome to remain behind. Pull gently and in a straight line to the path of the runner, and you may be more successful keeping the full length of rhizome together for removal.)
Rhizomes will typically hang within the top six inches of soil, if conditions permit. Yet they will go as deep as needed to get around obstacles. I’ve seen them two feet down. I’ve heard of them going under a wall with a three foot deep foundation. I used to think only gophers were willing to do that!
These nasty, fleshy rooty things are resistant to dying — Big Time. It seems like a diabolical plot, this almost invincible ability to survive in the most dreadful conditions.
They can stay viable in a dormant state through multiple seasons of drought.
Then as soon as moisture arrives, they pop up a stem to start a new headache for some unsuspecting gardener.
Once they begin to grow, bermuda grass can overcome any competition, even the strongest adversary.
(Unless you know everything about it, heh-heh! Keep reading!)
Common bermuda has an amazing assortment of leaf blade appearances. You may very well see a diverse array of blade dimensions at various locations in your yard, each suited to different environmental factors.
The tip of the leaf blade is pointed (if it hasn’t been cut by your mower yet). The length of the leaf blade could range from about an inch to 5 or 6 inches long. It is always fairly narrow.
Contrast this with crabgrass which will also be pointed at the end, but is a wide blade. If you compared the growing tips of bermuda with crabgrass, the bermuda would be like the front of a canoe, while the crabgrass tip is like the front of a rowboat.
You may read elsewhere that bermuda grass can grow 4-12 inches high. Just note that it is not an individual leaf blade that will be so terrifically long, growing tall like fescue or bluegrass. It is many very thin stems that are growing vertical, usually reaching for sunlight, with the multitude of thin leaf blades jutting off of them.
Be aware that Hybrid Bermuda varieties typically have a smaller leaf blade and will grow in a much tighter configuration than common bermuda grass. It’s almost like a miniature strain.
It is not as likely that a hybrid version has infiltrated your yard, unless you see a progression of it crawling over from a neighbor, since this type does not produce seeds (in most cases).
That happened in my mother's yard. This “dwarf bermuda” showed up in her dichondra lawn and she decided it wasn’t a bad option, so she let it take over. It is less invasive than common bermuda, and since she was able to keep it out of her flower beds with occasional trimming, it was a workable lawn.
They’re almost cute. Dangling seeds on little whirlybird stems. Groups of three or more seed branches will fan out from a seed-stalk that grows straight up (usually) from the center of a bermuda grass plant — when it is mature enough to do such a dastardly act.
“How tall are these seed stems,” you ask? Like everything else about bermuda, it depends. Usually no more than six inches, unlike the seedstalks of crabgrass which can be 12-18 inches high, if they feel like it.
But how short? Yup. Short — if they have no choice. Mow your grass as low as you can. Scalp the rascally bermuda weeds. Come back in a day or two, and there are the new little seed branchlets, blowing in the breeze, not even an inch above the ground. Bermuda grass is a prolific plant!
And how large or mature must the bermuda grass plant be before reproducing? Big plants do it. Little plants do it. You may see a barely visible struggling specimen with only two leaf blades showing, yet it has a seed stalk! It’s not fair!
Have you learned enough to identify bermuda as the unwanted villain in your lawn or yard? Combine this info with the Bermuda Photo Gallery, and you should be all set.
But sometimes in practice, things get confusing. So let’s do a practice run on identifying a weed display to see if it really is bermuda grass. Or could it be crabgrass, the most common alternative when naming rights are in question. Here is a sample quiz, in the form of an actual question sent in by one of our readers, and my response. She offered her observations and presented certain conditions, and I put 2 & 2 together to point out the likely conclusion.
We have had an invasive weed in our lawn for two years now and it looks something like the pictures of Crabgrass on this website with an enhancement: it sends out very long feeder branches along the surface of the soil that are difficult to pull out. My husband applied a fertilizer with a crabgrass preventer once in March and once in April but I would sure like to be sure we are really dealing with Crabgrass so that we can get rid of it once and for all.
There are several things I can suggest to help you isolate your identification of this weed. There is a possibility it may be bermuda grass, which is much more difficult to deal with than crab grass, so I hope for your sake you are correct.
1) Crabgrass is an annual weed. It will die each year as it finishes its cycle, although new plants coming up from seed in the same area may give the impression that it is the same plant.
Bermuda grass is the other possibility, and it survives through the winter, though it goes dormant.
If you can determine whether or not the plant has remained through the winter — in which case the existing runners should green up the same time as the main plant — then it is Bermuda.
If the weed grows up and out from the center plant first, before it sends out new runners, it is probably crabgrass.
2) Crabgrass CAN send out runners, but not alway & they do not usually go very far from the parent plant. There will not be many of them and the new plants from their nodes will not get as large as the mama.
Bermuda stolons are marathoners, usually a horde of them, with no intention of stopping their exploration, and the new shoot plants will quickly get to the same size as the original plant.
(Both types of weeds can become strongly rooted quite quickly.)
3) Crabgrass has a simple root system. If you dig up an established plant, it will have only ordinary fibrous roots.
Bermuda not only has the runners above ground, it has rhizomes that can remain close to the surface, or head quickly down from the base of the plant to a deeper level.
These develop after it reaches a certain point of maturity. Deep or shallow, these fat underground stems of common bermuda will spread out to eventually surface near and far to start new plants.
(This is an important bit of info that leads to the next observation.)
4) The double application of crabgrass preventer should give you a lot of protection this spring, and into the summer… IF you have crabgrass. Thus, if you start seeing the weed in question, I would suspect that it is NOT crabgrass. Crab grass could only grow from seed, being an annual plant, and that is not likely if the pre-emergent was put down in time. (It probably was.)
But the bermuda grass is capable of coming up from an underground rhizome, unaffected by the surface herbicides. So if you see the appearance of your dreaded aggressor, carefully dig it up from a depth sufficient to bring with it the buried rhizome that is sending up a shoot. There’s your answer.
5) Lastly, crabgrass has a characteristic floret pattern as it develops fully. When the plant is well grown to a nice round green clump, if you rub your hands over the center of the plant, you can push down all the blades and runners and see a definite center with everything radiating out from it.
In contrast, a large bermuda plant will not have a defined center. It will have stuff growing out from the single plant, but it will be very haphazard, like tussled hair, going every which way from various starting points.
You must be certain of your prey before embarking on a mission to search and destroy bermuda weed specimens. With this information, just proceed methodically to confirm or erase your suspicions. Then decide on the appropriate removal plan, understanding everything that must be overcome to control this persistent pest.
Check out the rest of the articles in this series that explain how to control, suppress, or get rid of bermuda grass completely, and when that is possible with the types of plants in your yard and garden.
P.S. Not everyone wants to get rid of bermuda. Ironically, (and to some of you an indication that there is justice in this world), I get a number of inquiries about getting other grassy weeds out of their nice bermuda lawn. So it works both ways. How about that!
Enjoy your gardening, and don’t let the latest pests bug you too much!