Foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum) receives its common name from its unique bushy inflorescence, or flower, which is similar in shape to the tail of a fox. This flower averages about two to five inches long and is soft and greenish or purplish. Its fluffy appearance comes from the awns, which can measure up to three inches long. Each yellowish-brown seed typically has four to eight awns, and it is also armed with tiny barbs along the edges.
Moving down the plant, note the smooth, slender, hollow stems. These stems grow in dense clumps and vary from one to three feet in height. They are typically upright, but can grow flat on the ground with just the tip pointing upward. The nodes are dark in color.
The bluish- or grayish-green leaf blades are either flat or u-shaped, tapering to sharp points. They can be from one to five inches long and are typically around 1/4 inch wide. They feel rough to the touch due to a covering of short, dense hairs. The leaves grow from loose, split sheaths lightly covered with hair.
Below the ground, foxtail barley is characterized by a shallow root system. It does not reproduce from rhizomes.
This native plant can be found across Kansas in a wide range of habitats. It is common in waste areas, around seeps, in ditches, and along roads. But it has a knack of spreading and can also become a weed of pastures and fields—particularly in no-till or reduced-till fields.
Foxtail barley is remarkably flexible in its soil preferences, being able to tolerate nearly anything from moist clay to dry sand. It can even establish itself in saline soils. Its pH preference is a remarkably broad range from 6.4 to 9.5.
Foxtail barley enjoys full sun, but can adapt to partial shade.
Foxtail barley is normally a cool-season annual, but it may be able to take on the characteristics of a short-lived perennial when provided with ample irrigation. The seeds germinate in the mild temperatures of fall, typically after a good, soaking rain. During this period of shortening days, the plants manage to store nutrients in their roots to carry them through the winter.
Once winter ends, the plants that sprouted in fall start to grow again, joined by new seedlings that germinated in the spring and maybe a few tillers. Foxtail barley is drought-hardy enough to grow through the summer, but its seeds cannot germinate in warm soil. Furthermore, they require a period of darkness to sprout, so sitting in the soil over the summer prepares them to germinate in fall.
Foxtail barley does not reproduce from rhizomes, so it must compensate by maximizing seed production—and it does just that! Each plant produces hundreds of seeds. As the seeds mature, the hallmark foxtails dry up and start to disintegrate, allowing the seeds to spread far and wide on the wind. Foxtail barley seeds can travel even further by latching onto birds and mammals.
Once the seeds are deposited in new homes, the awns burrow into the ground, ensuring that the seeds receive the requisite darkness prior to germination. These seeds will probably continue the life cycle by sprouting in the fall. Foxtail barley seeds lose viability very quickly in the soil; if tillage buries them lower than three inches and they cannot sprout within three years, they will likely never have another opportunity.
Foxtail barley is a pioneer species, a plant with the role of moving quickly into disturbed areas to protect and repair the soil. But disturbed areas are not the only places where it can do vital repair work—foxtail barley is also quick to move into soils with high salinity. It may improve soil conditions by pulling salt out of the ground and into its leaves, giving other species a chance to survive. In places where the soil is abused, however, the pioneering ability of this plant can make it an invasive weed, out-competing other (particularly shorter) native species.
When young, foxtail barley can provide tasty forage to many game animals. Even waterfowl can benefit from eating the seeds. Mature foxtail barley is hazardous, however, to large grazing mammals such as deer due to its sharp awns.
Foxtail barley can provide fairly good grazing when young. However, it is not typically considered a desirable pasture plant because once it forms a seed head it becomes unpalatable or even injurious to livestock. The animals will try to avoid it in favor of more palatable species, giving foxtail barley a competitive advantage and thus a chance to overspread the entire pasture over time.
In applications where erosion control is desired, particularly where saline soils are involved, foxtail barley can be planted with great success. Its fibery roots and pioneering tendencies will quickly lock down loose soil. But if creating a wildlife habitat is an additional goal of the planting, most other native grasses would be preferred. Foxtail barley can be invasive, and its awns can harm grazing animals such as deer.
Gardeners often enjoy the look of foxtail barley seed heads in their landscapes and in bouquets. It is a fairly easy plant to start from seed once all risk of frost has passed. Just scatter the seeds across the bed and rake over them to barely cover them with dirt. Keep the soil moist until the seeds have germinated, then thin to about 18 inches between plants. Foxtail barley will propagate itself in the garden afterwards, so regularly pull plants growing in undesired locations.
Foxtail barley can be a very troublesome weed in the field, both because it competes with crops for resources and because it harbors a number of viruses, including several rusts detrimental to wheat. Tillage is typically considered the most effective way to eradicate this weed because of its shallow root system. Increasing seeding rates to thicken up the crop canopy is also helpful, as foxtail barley cannot compete when it is shaded.
In the pasture and in hay fields, foxtail barley can be downright dangerous due to its sharp awns. These awns work their way into the mouths, throats, noses, and eyes of grazing animals, causing pain, inflammation, abscesses, appetite loss, and even blindness. Awns that have become entangled in wool will decrease the value of the fleece. In severe invasions, the only solution is to till the pasture repeatedly and then follow up by thickly sowing competitive perennial grasses. In established pastures with only a few foxtail barley plants, graze the barley intensely early in the spring to reduce growth. Maintain a healthy canopy of more desirable species by establishing a management-intensive grazing program. Avoid excessive burning, grazing, or mowing, and provide the pastures with ample rest periods in hot, droughty summers.
Pets should not be allowed access to foxtail barley, as the awns can work their way into the internal organs and cause serious damage. As if that isn’t bad enough, foxtail barley awns typically carry bacteria and thus cause migrating infections as they travel throughout the body. If your dog has been around foxtail barley, groom him thoroughly and examine his coat, paws, and ears for awns several times throughout the day. An awn that works its way inside the body can only be removed through surgery, as it does not decompose.
Foxtail barley pollen is a moderate allergen in humans.
Foxtail barley can be confused with the cereal grain barley. A good way to tell them apart is to measure the awns. Foxtail barley awns will be no more than three inches long. Cultivated barley awns range between 3.9 and 5.9 inches in length.
Parts of a Grass Plant: A Glossary
Definitions for technical terms used in this post.