U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Document Type


Date of this Version



A. Monti (ed.), Switchgrass, Green Energy and Technology, DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4471-2903-5_1.


This chapter discusses the prehistoric origins of switchgrass, its mid-twentieth century adoption as a crop, and late-twentieth century efforts to develop it into an energy crop. The species probably first appeared about 2 million years ago (MYA) and has continued to evolve since, producing two distinct ecotypes and widely varying ploidy levels. We build the case that all existing switchgrass lineages must be descended from plants that survived the most recent glaciation of North America and then, in just 11,000 years, re-colonized the eastern two-thirds of the continent. Moving to historic times, we discuss how switchgrass was first considered as a crop to be grown in monoculture only in the 1940s. Based on scientific reports indexed in a well-known database, interest in switchgrass grew very slowly from the 1940s until it began being considered by the US department of energy (DOE) as a potential energy crop in the 1980s. The history of how switchgrass became Doe’s ‘model’ herbaceous energy crop species is recounted here. Also chronicled are the early research efforts on switchgrass-for-energy in the US, Canada, and Europe and the explosive growth in the last decade of publications discussing switchgrass as an energy crop. If switchgrass—still very much a ‘wild’ species, especially compared to several domesticated grasses—truly attains global status as a species of choice for bioenergy technologies, it will have been a very remarkable evolution.