Pasture Grasses Identified


Factsheet - ISSN 1198-712X   -   Copyright Queen's Printer for Ontario
Agdex#: 400/62
Publication Date: September 2006
Order#: 06-095
Last Reviewed: November 2011
History: Replaces OMAFRA Publication 204, Pasture Grasses Identified
Written by: Jack Kyle, Grazier Specialist/OMAFRA

Table of Contents

Introduction

Grasses are an important component of pastures in Ontario. In mixed legume and grass pastures, the grasses reduce the danger from bloat, help to keep weeds out and improve the chances of stands surviving the winter. Grass pastures can supply good yields of quality feed, and the wide selection of grass species means that there is a grass to suit almost any growing condition or management need.

This Factsheet identifies the main grass species that are used in pasture seed mixtures, as well as one weed species - quack grass. Quack grass is a common component in most pastures and is a good source of nutrition before it matures. Agronomic information for the cultivated species can be found in OMAFRA Publication 811, Agronomy Guide for Field Crops.

Figure 1. Leaf Characteristics

Illustration of leaf characteristics showing stem at the top being hollow except at the nodes, the leaf sheath below followed by the node which is distinct, next the culm stem with the leaf blade pulled out displaying the collar (distinct), ligule (membranous), auricle and the margin of leaf sheath, next is the leaf sheath open or split with separate margins, and below that, the leaf sheath is open or split with the margins overlapped and lower is the leaf sheath closed with the margins united, next is the node and on the bottom is the stem (culm)

Identification

Grasses can easily be identified by looking at the leaves, stems and inflorescences (seed heads). The drawings on the following pages show things to check when looking at each of these plant parts.

Leaves

A leaf consists of 2 parts - the sheath and the blade (see Figure 1).

Sheath

The sheath is the tubular portion that surrounds the stem or younger growing leaves. The sheath can be:

  • split, with margins separate
  • split, with margins overlapping
  • closed, forming a tube around the stem, with only a small notch on the side opposite to the leaf blade (Figure 2, below).

Figure 2. Sheath types

Illustration of sheath types with the first showing the split and margins are separarated, the second shows the split with the margins overlapping and the third is closed.

Blade

The blade is the upper, non-clasping part of the leaf. It is usually long and flat but may be slightly folded or rolled lengthwise, and bristle-like (Figure 3, below).

Figure 3. View of the cross-section of a leaf blade.

Illustration showing the cross-section of the leaf blade in an oval shape as it is flat.  The second is showing the blade in a "v" shape and the third is slightly rolled lengthwise.

The tip of the blade can be boat-shaped, or tapered and flat (Figure 4, below).

Figure 4. Leaf tip shapes

The illustration shows the tip of the blade in a "boat-shaped" and the second illustration  is tapered with the point sharp at the tip.

Collar

The area that divides the sheath and the blade is called the collar (see Figure 1). It can also offer clues to a grass's identity. The collar may be broad or narrow, have a conspicuous midrib or be continuous from one edge of the leaf to the other (Figure 5, below).

Figure 5. Collar types (seen from the back of the leaf blade)

Illustration showing the collar  with a broad band, the second indicating a narrow band and the third is divided by midrib.

Auricles and Ligules

Two types of appendages may be found on the collar. Auricles are claw-like and project from the sides of the collar. They are often absent, but when present they may vary from being large and clasping to small and slender (Figure 6, below).

Figure 6. Aurical types

Illustration showing the aurical and ligule with clawlike characteristics that are clasping and the second is blunted without the claws.

The ligule is a very thin, tongue-like appendage growing upward from the inner surface of the collar between the leaf blade and the stem. If present, it may be just a fringe of hair or a thin membrane (Figure 7, below).

Figure 7. Ligule types

Illustration showing ligule types with the first showing a fringe of hairs and the second showing a thin membrane.

Stems

The flowering stems of grasses are usually hollow and are either round or flat (Figure 8, below).

Illustration showing the flowering stems with round and flat stem.

Inflorescences

There are three forms of seed heads (Figure 9, below): panicle (branching), spike (unbranched, with uniformly spaced spikelets) and spike-like panicle (unbranched, with uniformly spaced spikelets).

Figure 9 Types of inflorescence

Illustrating showing the three forms of seed heads with the first with branching effect, the second has spikelets and the third has one unifirm spike with spaces.

Timothy

Our most commonly used forage grass. It is a light-green bunchgrass.

The sheath is split with overlapping margins. The blade is 4-12 mm wide, 7-25 cm long and flat with a sharp-pointed tip. The collar is broad and continuous. There are no auricles. The ligule is a white membrane with a distinct notch and tooth on each side. The stems are round and 50-100 cm tall. The inflorescence is a very dense, spike-like panicle.

Distinguishing features

Flat, light-green, nearly smooth leaf blades and onion-like bulbs or corms at the base of the stems.

Figure 10a - Grass Species (Timothy)

Photo of timothy grass light green in colour with the inflorescence being very dense with a spike-like panicle.

Figure 10b - Collar (Timothy)

Photo of collar of timothy being light green and flat with nearly smooth leaf blades.

Smooth Bromegrass

Varies in colour from light to dark green. It has brownish, blunt-tipped rhizomes covered with brown, scale-like sheaths and forms an open sod.

The sheath is closed. The blade is 4-12 mm wide, 15-40 cm long and flat with a sharp, pointed tip. The collar is narrow and divided by the mid-rib. There are no auricles. The ligule is a very short membrane. The stems are round and 60-120 cm tall. The inflorescence is a large panicle with the branches spreading in all directions. When top heavy, the branches shift over to one side.

Distinguishing features

A constriction resembling the letter "W" usually in the leaf blade about midway between the tip and the collar.

Figure 11a - Grass Species (Smooth Bromegrass)

Photo of smooth bromegrass which varies in colour from light to dark green.  It has brownish, blunt-tipped rhizomes covered with brown sale-like sheaths and forms and open sod.

Figure 11b - Collar (Smooth Bromegrass)

Photo of the smooth bromegrass collar, light green in colour flat like characteristics

Meadow Bromegrass

An under-used grass in pastures in Ontario. It has a high number of light-green, hairy leaves. It is a bunchgrass with a high re-growth and recovery rate.

The sheath is closed to near the top and is hairy. The blade is 2-5 mm wide, 10-30 cm long and is flat with a sharp point tip. It is also hairy on both upper and lower surfaces. The collar is narrow and divided at the midrib. There are no auricles. The ligule is a short, white membrane not unlike the smooth brome species. The stems are round and 60-90 cm tall. The inflorescence is a large panicle with branches in all directions. It is a bit smaller than smooth bromegrass and has short awns.

Distinguishing features

The hairy blades and sheaths, and the many, drooping basal leaves distinguish this grass from smooth bromegrass.

Figure 12a - Grass Species (Meadow Bromegrass)

Photo of meadow gromegrass with a number of light green, hairy leaves.

Figure 12b - Collar (Meadow Bromegrass)

Photo of the meadow bromegrass collar that is narrow and divided at the midrib.

Orchard Grass

A fast-growing light-green bunchgrass.

The sheath is split part way and is green on the top and pale green or white on the lower part. The blade is 5-12 mm wide and 8-40 cm long. It is V-shaped near the base, but flat towards the sharp, pointed tip. The yellow-green collar is broad and divided by a midrib. There are no auricles. The ligule is a white membrane that usually has an awn-like point at the top. The stems are flat and 90-150 cm tall. The inflorescence is a panicle made up of several short, thick tufts.

Distinguishing features

The flat stems and the coarsely tufted panicle.

Figure 13a

Figure 13b

Reed Canary Grass

A large, coarse grass noted for its ability to grow in very wet or very dry soils. It forms a loose sod.
The sheath is split with overlapping margins. The blade is 6-15 mm wide, 10-30 cm long and flat with a sharp-pointed tip. The pale green or yellow collar is narrow and continuous. There are no auricles. The ligule is a white membrane that sometimes tears at the top with maturity. Stems are round. The inflorescence is a panicle similar to orchard grass but with finer tufts.

Distinguishing features

Wide leaf blades and edges of the blade constricted 5 cm from either the tip or the collar.

Figure 14a Grass Species (Reed Canary Grass)

Photo of reed canary grass that is light green with reddish brown tips on a bushy setting.

Figure 14b Collar (Reed Canary Grass)

Photo of reed canary grass collar which is green or yellow and the collar is narrow and continuous.

Creeping Red Fescue

A sod-forming grass that has narrow, bristle-like dark green leaves.

The sheath is split part way and covered with fine hairs. The blade is 1.5-3 mm wide, 5-15 cm long, thick and rolled or folded lengthwise. The upper surface is deeply ridged, and the undersurface is shiny. The collar is narrow and continuous. There are no auricles. The ligule is a very short membrane. The stems are nearly round. The inflorescence is an open, fine panicle.

Distinguishing features

Dark-green, very slender and bristle-like leaves; old, dead basal leaf sheaths are reddish brown (hence the common name).

Figure 15a Grass Species (Creeping Red Fescue)

Illustration of creeping red fescue which is very slender and bristle-like leaves

Figure 15b Collar (Creeping Red Fescue)

Illustration showing the creeping red fescue collar being narrow and continuous.

Meadow Fescue

A deep-rooted, bright-green grass. Usually a bunchgrass, it has short rhizomes and may be weakly creeping.

The sheath is split with the margins overlapping at the bottom. The blade is 3-8 mm wide and 10-50 cm long, the upper side is dull and the lower side shiny. The edges are rough, and the tip is sharp-pointed. The collar is broad and continuous. The auricles are 0.5-1.5 mm long and usually blunt but sometimes claw like. The ligule is a very short membrane. The stems are round and 60-125 cm tall. The inflorescence is a slender panicle.

Distinguishing features

Rough leaf edges, short ligules and claw-like auricles.

Figure 16a Grass Species (Meadow Fescue)

Illustration of meadow fescue which is bright-green.

Figure 16b Collar (Meadow Fescue)

Illustration of meadow fescue collar  which is broad and continuous.

Tall Fescue

A deep-rooted grass that produces well during the summer and retains its feed quality after being frosted. This deep green grass forms large (10-40 cm diameter), dense bunches, even though it has short rhizomes.

The sheath is split with the margins overlapping. The sheaths are smooth, thick and leathery, and the lower ones are very slow to decay. The blade is 4-12 mm wide, 20-70 cm long and flat with a sharp-pointed tip. It is thick and leathery, very smooth and shiny on the under-surface but dull and deeply ridged on the upper surface. The edges are rough. The yellowish collar is broad and wrinkled on the edges. The yellowish auricles are soft and wavy and have a few fine hairs along their margins. The ligule is a small membrane. The stems are round and 90-150 cm tall. The inflorescence is a spreading panicle.

Distinguishing features

Its tall, coarse growth, the prominently ribbed leathery dark green leaves, and the thick tussocks formed by the accumulation of old dead leaf sheaths for several years.

Figure 17a Grass Species (Tall Fescue)

Photo of tall fescue grass split with margins overlapping.  The sheats are smooth, thick and leathery.

Figure 17b Collar (Tall Fescue)

Photo of tall fescue collar  which is broad and wrinkled on the edges.

Meadow Foxtail

An early, fast growing, dark-green grass that looks similar to timothy. It grows well on moist soils and forms a sod.

The sheath is split with the margins overlapping. The blade is 3-8 mm wide, 10-15 cm long and flat with a sharp-pointed tip; the edges are rough. The upper surface is prominently ribbed. The light-green or yellow, medium-broad collar is divided by the midrib. There are no auricles. The ligule is a coarse membrane that is slightly hairy and striated. The stems are round and 50-100 cm tall. The inflorescence is a dense, spike-like panicle and looks like timothy. The short, soft awns along the sides of the seed head give the appearance of a fox's tail.

Distinguishing features

The rough leaf edges, the type of ligule, and the collar divided by the midribs distinguish meadow foxtail from timothy.

Figure 18a Grass Species (Meadow Foxtail)

Photo of meadow foxtail  split with the margins overlapping.

Figure 18b Collar (Meadow Foxtail)

Photo of meadow foxtail collar which is light green or yellow and divided by the midrib.

Kentucky Bluegrass

A dark-green grass that forms a dense sod in pastures with fertile, well-drained soils.

The sheath is closed when the plant is young but later splits. The blade is 2-5 mm wide, 5-40 cm long and V-shaped with a boat-shaped tip. It is shiny on the under-surface. The yellowish-green collar is broad and slightly divided by the midrib. There are no auricles. The ligule is a very short membrane. The stems are somewhat flattened and 30-100 cm tall. The inflorescence is an open, fine panicle with 5 branches at each node of the central axis.

Distinguishing features

The dark green colour and the shininess of the underside of leaves plus the boat-shaped leaf tips. The lead blade, when held up to the light, looks as if it has two transparent lines on each side of the midrib.

Figure 19a Grass Species (Kentucky Bluegrass)


Photo of kentucky bluegrass with the blade v-shaped and a boat-shaped tip.

Figure 19b Collar (Kentucky Bluegrass)

Photo of kentucky bluegrass with the collar yellow-green in colour which is broad and slightly divided by the midrib.

Canada Bluegrass

A bluish-green grass commonly found in run-down pastures. It forms an open sod.

The sheath is split. The blade is 2-5 mm wide, 2-10 cm long, and flat to V-shaped with a boat-shaped tip. The light-green collar is narrow and divided by the midrib. There are no auricles. The ligule is a short membrane. The stems are flat, and 50-75 cm tall. The inflorescence is a slender, fine panicle with 2 branches at each node of the central axis.

Distinguishing features

The pale bluish-green colour and dullness of leaves, which taper gradually from the collar to their boat-shaped tips. The leaf blade, when held up to light, looks as if it has a fine transparent line on each side of the midrib.

Figure 20a Grass Species (Canada Bluegrass)

Photo of Canada bluegrass with is bluish-green and is a flat v-shaped with a boat-shaped tip.

Figure 20b Collar (Canada Bluegrass)

Photo of Canada Bluegrass with the collar being light-green and narrow divided by the midrib.

Perennial Ryegrass

A soft, fine, bright-green grass that has a fibrous root system. It is short-lived despite its name.
The pale-green sheath can be either closed or split. The blade is 2-6 mm wide, 5-15 cm long and V-shaped, with a sharp-pointed tip. It is prominently ribbed on the top and smooth and shiny on the bottom. The collar is narrow. The auricles are small, soft and claw-like. The ligule is a thin membrane that is toothed at the top. The stems are flat and short, 30-60 cm tall. The inflorescence is a slender, stiff spike with each spikelet edgewise on the central axis.

Distinguishing features

The somewhat flattened or round stems, the shiny undersides of the bright green leaf blades, the soft, claw-like auricles and the spike inflorescence.

Figure 21a Grass Species (Perennial Ryegrass)

Photo of perennial ryegrass which is page-green in colour and is long, v-shaped with a sharp pointed tip.

Figure 21b Collar (Perennial Ryegrass)

Photo of perennial ryegrass with the collar being narrow.

Red Top

A common grass in pastures that have moderately moist soils. It has dark-green leaves and somewhat purplish inflorescences, which turn rusty red as they mature. It forms an open sod.

The sheath is split, with the margins overlapping. The blade is 2-7 mm wide, 5-20 cm long and flat with a sharp, pointed tip. It is prominently ridged on the upper surface, and the midrib is distinct on the bottom side. The pale green collar is large and V-shaped. There are no auricles. The ligule is a thin, pointed membrane that is very tall. The inflorescence is a fine panicle that is a rusty-red colour at maturity.

Distinguishing features

The prominently ridged upper surface of the blade, the tall ligule and the absence of auricles.

Figure 22a Grass Species (Red Top)

Photo of Red Top with a flat sharp pointed tip.  It is ridged on the upper surface and the midrib is distict on the bottom side.

Figure 22b Collar (Red Top)

Photo of the Red Top collar whish is pale green, large and v-shaped.

Quack Grass

A commonly found grass that is known for its long rhizome system that produces a loose but tough-to-kill sod.

The sheath is split, with the margins overlapping. It may be smooth but is usually very hairy. The blade is 3-10 mm wide, 8-20 cm long and flat with a sharp-pointed tip. It is slightly hairy on the upper surface. The collar is V-shaped and divided by the midrib. It is finely hairy. The auricles are 1-3 mm long, slender and clasping. The ligule is a short, finely toothed membrane. The stems are round and 50-100 cm tall. The inflorescence is a slender, stiff spike with each little spikelet placed flat-wise on the central axis.

Distinguishing features

The slender, erect stems normally with hairy, split-leaf sheaths, clasping auricles and a short ligule; and a tough sod full of light-coloured rhizomes with hard, white, sharp, pointed tips.

Figure 23a Grass Species (Quack Grass)

Photo of Quack Grass with long, flat sharp-pointed tip.

Figure 23b Collar (Quack Grass)

Photo of the Quack Grass collar  which is v-shaped and divided by the midrib.



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