Cultivating C4 feedstocks in northern climates: Miscanthus, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)


C4 bioenergy crops for cool climates, with special emphasis on perennial C4 grasses

by Rowan F. SageMurilo de Melo PeixotoPatrick Friesen, Bill Deen


There is much interest in cultivating C4 perennial plants in northern climates where there is an abundance of land and a potential large market for biofuels. C4 feedstocks can exhibit superior yields to C3 alternatives during the long warm days of summer at high latitude, but their summer success depends on an ability to tolerate deep winter cold, spring frosts, and early growth-season chill.

Here, we review cold tolerance limits in C4perennial grasses. Dozens of C4 species are known from high latitudes to 63 °N and elevations up to 5200 m, demonstrating that C4 plants can adapt to cold climates. Of the three leading C4 grasses being considered for bioenergy production in cold climates—Miscanthus spp., switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata)—all are tolerant of cool temperatures (10–15 °C), but only cordgrass tolerates hard spring frosts. All three species overwinter as dormant rhizomes. In the productive Miscanthus×giganteus hybrids, exposure to temperatures below –3 °C to –7 °C will kill overwintering rhizomes, while for upland switchgrass and cordgrass, rhizomes survive exposure to temperatures above –20 °C to –24 °C. Cordgrass emerges earlier than switchgrass andM. giganteus genotypes, but lacks the Miscanthus growth potential once warmer days of late spring arrive. To enable C4-based bioenergy production in colder climates, breeding priorities should emphasize improved cold tolerance of M.×giganteus, and enhanced productivity of switchgrass and cordgrass. This should be feasible in the near future, because wild populations of each species exhibit a diverse range of cold tolerance and growth capabilities.


See the text: Journal of Experimental Botany


Published by

Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.