To Grass Species

Reed Canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea)

Plant Species
From Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook *
S. Smoliak, R.L. Ditterline, J.D. Scheetz, L.K. Holzworth, J.R. Sims, L.E. Wiesner, D.E. Baldridge, and G.L. Tibke

Reed canarygrass is a rhizomatous, long-lived, perennial grass, native to the temperate regions of Europe, Asia and North America. It is indigenous to moist and wetland areas of the northern United States and Canada. It was first recognized as a good forage plant in Sweden in 1749, and first cultivated in this country in 1886 (Oregon). Reed canarygrass and creeping foxtail tolerate more water during the growing season than do any other cultivated grasses.


Reed canarygrass is a coarse-stemmed, broad-leaved grass attaining heights from 2 to 8 feet. Leaf blades are 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide. It tends to grow in clumps or tussocks, but spreads by short, scaley rhizomes, forming a very dense sod. The wet soils it usually inhabits do not encourage very deep root penetration. The leafy stems are usually stout enough to avoid lodging. The inflorescence is a semi-dense, spike-like panicle, varying from 2 to 8 inches long; the branches of the panicle spreading during anthesis. The brown to grey-black seeds are obovate, smooth and waxy. The seeds readily shatter at maturity, shattering from the top of the panicle downward. Seed maturity can be expected during the first half of July.


This grass is able to withstand ponding for up to two months, and is tolerant of waterlogged soils. It will survive on upland soils that receive 24 inches or more annual precipitation. Reed canarygrass will withstand only slight amounts of acidity and alkalinity. It will survive short drought periods, but is very low-yielding under dry conditions. The dense sod of reed canarygrass makes it useful on highly-erodible waterways, shorelines and ditchbanks.


The dense sod and tall growth can produce an undesirable, thick stand along ditches and canals, causing silt buildup and deterring water movement. This grass is susceptible to winterkill if there is not an adequate snow cover to protect it. The tall growth of this species limits its usefulness for seeding in mixtures because it tends to shade out the legumes. Seedlings are slow to establish, but once rhizomes begin to form the grass is quite hardy.

Use for Hay

Reed canarygrass is exceptionally high-yielding for hay. However, low-quality hay is frequently made because this grass is usually grown alone in areas too wet to harvest until late in the season. When harvested at the early heading stage, its nutritive value is comparable to that of other forage grasses. The best quality hay is obtained from stands that have been pastured early in the spring to set back the haying period, thus reducing the coarseness of growth. Reed canarygrass requires heavy fertilization to maintain a high level of production. The tall, coarse nature of this grass makes it acceptable to harvest as silage. By making this crop into silage, it is often possible to save the crop when conditions are such that it is difficult to cure as hay.

Use for Pasture

The relatively low palatability of this grass makes it necessary to have it fenced separately, giving livestock no alternative. New cultivars such as 'Palaton' have been selected for improved palatability, although these have not been widely evaluated in Montana. Reed canarygrass is very useful for pasture. It starts to grow early in the spring, showing good distribution of growth throughout the season. To maintain good quality, reed canarygrass should not be allowed to get more than 12 inches high. However, it is intolerant of continuous close grazing, and should not be grazed shorter than 4 inches. Controlling the height of the reed canarygrass by grazing or clipping makes it possible to include a legume in the stand, except on the very moist sites. Regrowth after hay or seed harvest is fair, and can be used for grazing.

Seed Production

Seed matures from the top of the panicle downward. There is a period of only two or three days between the ripening of the first seed and the time when shatter is too great to warrant harvesting the seed crop. The seed can be either direct combined or swathed. If swathed, leave at least a 3-foot stubble, and try to position the windrow so that it is perched on the stubble rather than falling to the ground between rows. Seed production is possible under irrigated or subirrigated conditions. Because of shatter problems, production is variable, but ranges from 200 to 500 pounds per acre. The seeds mature during the first half of July. Good seed will remain viable for three to four years, compared to six to eight years for most other grasses.

* The Montana Interagency Plant Materials Handbook (EB69) is no longer in print, but is available for viewing in
Montana County Extension Service and National Resource Conservation Service Offices.