When it comes to the turf war in ACC football, the division-leading Clemson Tigers have an edge—as if they needed one.
Before the season began, NC State turfgrass researcher Casey Reynolds predicted that Clemson would be atop the standings. However, his wholly scientific poll had nothing to do with wins and losses. It was all about school colors and how they affect the health of the painted grass in the end zones and at midfield.
Water-based athletic paints don’t kill the grass, as you might expect, but they take a toll when applied weekly. How much of a toll depends on the school color.
Reynolds, a graduate student, and crop scientist Dr. Grady Miller have been testing all of the colors used by ACC schools—and regional rivals East Carolina University and the University of South Carolina—using formulations with the official color for each school.
Plants use the same wavelengths of light that are visible to the human eye, 400 to 700 nanometers. The pigments in paint that allow our eyes to perceive a color like Wolfpack red affect which wavelengths of light are available for photosynthesis in turfgrass.
The colors of light that plants use most efficiently are in the red (600-700 nm) and blue (400-500 nm) regions of this spectrum. But before you Wolfpack and Blue Devils fans go getting all excited, listen to the rest of the story.
When turfgrass is painted, light can be reflected, transmitted or absorbed. Lighter colors like orange, yellow, and white tend to reflect more light, giving plants better opportunities for photosynthesis. Darker colors like black, dark blue, and maroon tend to absorb more light, keeping it from reaching the grass below the painted canopy.
“Think about why our football players often put black strips under their eyes,” Reynolds said. “It’s to reduce the glare that occurs when light is reflected off of their cheeks.”
Room for Growth
The same concept applies to athletic field paint.
“Darker colors like black and Duke blue absorb over 90 percent of light that plants need for photosynthesis,” Reynolds said. “Wolfpack red and Carolina blue only absorb about half of that.”
That means Clemson orange fans are in luck; darker-hued Duke and South Carolina lag far behind. Wolfpack red is, well, in the middle of the pack.
“What is so exciting about our research is that it supports what ACC and NFL field managers routinely tell us regarding which colors impact their fields the most,” Reynolds said.
But don’t worry—no one is suggesting that the ECU Pirates lose the purple. Reynolds and Miller think that their research may lead to formulations of paint that don’t kill the turf, which could truly level the playing field.