Timothy is a short-lived cool-season non-native perennial that grows in clumps (said to be 'cespitose') from a shallow, fibrous root system springing from a bulbous base. It the plant is undisturbed the base enlarges, but even without repeated cuttings or grazing, eventually dies. The lower internodes of the stem (culm) of the plant are swollen during the growing season. The stems are erect, gray-green, averaging from 1 to 3.5 feet in height but can reach 5 feet.
Leaf blades are up to 1/4 inch wide (4 to 8 mm) and taper toward the tip. Blade length is up to 18 inches (5 - 45 cm). Blades are flat, distinctly veined, twisted, erect, light green in color and usually rough on the margins.
Sheaths, collars and ligules: The leaf sheath is split, distinctly veined, without hair and often purplish at the base. The sheath of the flag leaf (the leaf immediately below the seed panicle in grains) is not inflated as they are in some other species of Phleum. The leaf ligule is dome-like, 2 to 4 mm long, and very prominent.
Inflorescence: The flowering head is a spike-like panicle 2 to 6 inches long (5 to 10+ cm) but only 5 to 10 mm wide (up to 3/8 inch) - 5 to 20x as long as wide - and not tapering at the top. With numerous spikelets it forms a dense cylindrical structure (which gave it the old common name of "catstail" in England).
Spikelets: Spikelets are laterally compressed with 1 floret. There will be more than one spikelet per node on the rachis. Glumes are 3 to 4 mm long, strongly keeled, with cilicate hair on the keel, usually with fine surface hair overall, and 1 to 1.5 mm long awns which look like short horns, not soft. The tips are truncate to tapered. The lemmas are about 1/2 the length of the glumes, white, 5 to 7 veined, without awns, not keeled, and usually with fine surface hair. Florets have 3 anthers.
Habitat: Timothy has a fibrous root system, growing best in rich, moist, bottomland soil and does not do well on coarse soils. It is a good forage plant, very palatable to livestock and originally introduced from Eurasia for that purpose. It can now be found in rangelands and disturbed sites in cooler regions of North America.
Names: The genus Phleum is Greek for a type of reed and pratense means "of meadows" referring to the plants preferred habitat. Timothy is named for Timothy Hanson, an 18th Century American farmer from Maryland who promoted the grass around 1720 for use as hay as the Northern European strains (of which this is one) are considered superior for forage. The plant was known as "herd's grass" in England and also as "catstail". Author Walter Ebeling [The Fruited Plain: The Story of American Agriculture] states that it was used as a forage crop around Portsmouth New Hampshire (having arrived there at some earlier time from England or the Continent) around 1720 and that is when Timothy Hanson started to distribute it to other states. By the 1850s it was well established in the southern states and elsewhere in the country. [The Louisville Daily Courier (Louisville, Kentucky) · Sat, July 9, 1859]
Comparisons: There are seven species of Phleum found in North America, of which only one is native - P. alpinum, Alpine Timothy. Species of Alopecurus (Foxtail Grasses) can be confused with Phleum but Alopecurus has obtuse to acute glumes and lemmas that are keeled and awned.
Above: A stand of Timothy in the Upland Garden. Photo above and at top left ©Phoebe Waugh. Drawing courtesy USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Hitchcock, A.S. (rev. A. Chase). 1950. Manual of the grasses of the United States. USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 200. Washington, DC. Note the horn-like awns on the drawing of the spikelet.
Below: The flowering spike-like panicle of Timothy in flower. Botanical Illustration courtesy Kurt Stüber's Online Library.
Below: 1st photo - Timothy florets in flower on the flowering spike. 2nd photo - The dome shaped ligule and the purplish color of the edges of the leaf sheath.
Below: Detail of the awns on the spikelets.
Timothy is a non-native grass introduced into North America from Europe about 1700. It is now naturalized and found throughout the United States and Canada. In Minnesota it is found throughout the state, absent in only a few widely scattered counties. It is the only species of Phleum found in the State. There are seven species of Phleum found in North America, of which only one is native.