Timing of seedling emergence is a critical aspect of a plant's life cycle, and it may influence the expression of other plant life history traits. However, most studies have been conducted at the population level, and thus little is known about timing of seedling emergence at the community level. In the field, we determined the peak emergence season for seedlings of 144 species collected from a subalpine meadow on the eastern Tibet Plateau in China. The proportion of species with seedlings emerging in autumn, spring and summer, seedling field emergence percentage (FE) and mean emergence time (MET) were analysed in relation to seed mass, life cycle type (annual/biennial and perennial) and phylogeny. The results showed that (1) the proportion of species with seedlings emerging in autumn (33%), spring (44%) and summer (23%) differed significantly; (2) overall, species with seedlings emerging in autumn had higher FE than those emerging during spring/summer; (3) there was a positive relationship between log-seed mass and log-MET, but log-seed mass had no significant effect on log-FE; (4) life cycle type did not affect seedling emergence; and (5) phylogeny significantly explained peak emergence season. These results suggest that seed mass and phylogenetic position are the main determinants of seedling emergence season. However, seedling peak emergence season affected FE, growing season length and resource utilization, and thus may be related to the importance of a species in the community.