Timothy (Phleum pratense)


Grass Family (Poaceae)

Other Names:

cat's tail, herd grass, herd's grass, meadow cat's tail.

Origin and Distribution:

Timothy is native to Europe and Asia, and was probably brought to America by the colonists accidentally in contaminated hay or manure. It was discovered growing wild in 1711, and soon after, was cultivated for hay. Timothy is widely naturalized in the U.S. and southern Canada, and is still cultivated for hay and pasture. This species can be found almost everywhere in Ohio, including crop fields, meadows, roadsides and orchards. Timothy grows best in nutrient-rich soils, and is adapted to cool humid climates. It does not tolerate drought conditions.

Plant Description:

Timothy is an erect, clump-forming perennial grass, characterized by its dense, cylindrical, spike-like flower heads and swollen, bulb-like stem bases. Timothy reproduces through seeds, and clumps enlarge by producing new shoots (tillers) from the bases of old stems. This species can form large clumps.

  • Root System:

    The roots of timothy are slender, and form a shallow, fibrous root system. Under unusual conditions, such as when plants are covered with soil, short rhizomes (horizontal underground stems) may form.

  • Stems:

    Stems are erect, round, whitish and generally smooth (sometimes rough directly below the flower head), and grow 1 to 3 1/2 feet high (sometimes up to 5 feet). Most stems develop a swollen, bulb-like base, or haplocorm, which is usually composed of one swollen internode (the portion of stem between two joints).

  • Leaves:

    Leaves are rolled in the bud. The leaf blade (free part of the leaf) (3 to 9 inches long, 1/6 to 2/5 inch wide) is grayish green, flat and elongated, tapering to a long point. Blades are hairless, and have rough margins. The leaf sheath (part of the leaf surrounding the stem) is smooth and rounded. The ligule (projection inside on the top of the sheath) is membranous, slightly toothed (often with a distinct notch on each side), and 1/12 to 1/8 inch long. Auricles (appendages at the top of the sheath) are absent.

  • Flowers:

    Small flowers are arranged densely in a narrow, cylindrical, spike-like flower head (2 to 4 inches long, 1/5 to 1/3 inch wide). The flower head is stiff and rough-textured, turning from a pale green to tan when mature.

  • Fruits and Seeds:

    Seeds are oval and 1/12 inch long.

Similar Species:

The flower heads of timothy may resemble those of the bristly foxtails (Setaria spp.) and the foxtails (Alopecurus spp.). The bristly foxtails are annual species that have a hairy ligule and a less dense flower head, with long bristles surrounding the flowers. The foxtails are a mixture of annual and perennial species that are smaller in stature and have soft-textured flower heads. These foxtails are often sprawling, and tend to grow in damp soil. Young plants of timothy may resemble those of quackgrass (Elytrigia repens) and orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata). Quackgrass may be distinguished by its claw-like appendages (auricles) at the top of the sheath. Orchardgrass leaves are folded in the bud.


Flowering occurs in June and early July. Seeds mature in late July or early August, and many germinate in August and September. Fall seedlings can continue to grow on warm days during the winter.

Timothy spreads primarily by seed, and clumps enlarge by tillering (formation of new shoots from the base of existing stems). However, the formation of tillers also serves another important purpose. Although this species behaves as a perennial, it is not a true perennial, since each stem and its associated root system survives for only one year. Tillering allows timothy plants to perpetuate themselves vegetatively. New shoots are produced from below the haplocorm (swollen area) at the base of mature stems. These shoots develop into new stems with new haplocorms and roots, and the old stems, haplocorms and roots die. The haplocorm is thought to aid in new shoot production. Most of the roots of timothy are found within a few inches of the soil surface. Timothy is generally grown for its use as hay. It is usually mixed with clover, alfalfa or birdsfoot trefoil.


None known. Pollen can cause dermatitis and hayfever.

Facts and Folklore:

  • Timothy was originally referred to as 'herd grass' after John Herd, who found it growing wild in New Hampshire in 1711.

  • Timothy was named after a farmer, Timothy Hanson, who first promoted cultivation of this grass for hay in 1720.