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Thursday, 7 February 2019

Timothy Grass, an unusual history

Timothy Grass, Phleum pratense, is one of the few native grasses named after an individual and its origin has an interesting history.

It is a native plant that is often seen in the Calder Valley but mostly on waste ground and canal banks. Other parts of the country cultivate it as a crop.

But who was “Timothy” ?

A variety of this grass was unintentionally taken to America from Scandinavia in the late 1600’s and first records there are from New England. John Herd was a New Hampshire farmer who grew it for horse and cattle fodder and in 1711 gained the name “Herd’s Grass”. It had a reputation for superior feed for horses that were driven long and hard and has the energy equivalent of 93 octane petrol. Has now gained a reputation as race horse delicacy in America.

Subsequently there was a New England farmer named Timothy Hanson who lived in Maryland and began farming there about 1720. He used “Herd’s” grass seed and was the first person to grow it commercially.

Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin bought the seed and it was Benjamin Franklin who first began calling it “Timothy’s seed”. Its name became Timothy grass by 1736 and just plain Timothy by 1747.

When the grass had proved its utility in America, seeds were sent back to England in 1760 whereupon it was first recommended for agriculture over here. Genetics have shown the American cultivated grass is hexaploid, whereas our British wild form is diploid, ie fewer chromosomes.

America then, in returning the grass to England, was not giving back what it had received, but was sending a new (possibly hybrid) race which had originated there and had enhanced value for fodder.

In this country it is the food plant for the Marbled White and Essex Skipper butterfly. Its pollen has recently been used in a new vaccine developed for hay fever.


  1. Interesting. Is it related to Meadow Foxtail, which we beginners so often get it mixed up with?

    And are the two butterflies totally reliant on Timothy or just prefer it? If so it might be worth sowing it intentionally on nature reserves.

    Essex Skipper was identified for the first time in Calderdale at Cromwell Bottom LNR last July by Brian Cain of Halifax Scientific Society. It is known to be spreading north.

  2. Hi Steve.
    It's not related to Meadow Foxtail, they are in a different genus. Foxtail and Timothy do look similar; But for a beginner the best way to tell them apart is the time of year seen. Foxtail is always a very early Spring/early summer flowering (from end of March) whereas Timothy is mid summer to early autumn. It would be very unusual to see them both in flower at same time.

    Both those butterflies rely on grasses other than Timothy. Essex Skipper breeds on common local grasses such as meadow foxtail, couch and creeping soft grass etc, all found at Cromwell Bottom I'm sure.

  3. Steve;
    It seems Cocksfoot is the favoured food plant of the Essex Skipper, again it is a common local grass.