Wildflower of the Year
2021 Kansas Wildflower of the Year
Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)
Credit: Michael Haddock, kswildflower.org
To see these photos by Michael Haddock and a detailed description of Silphium laciniatum, visit kswildflower.org.
Compass plant is found in roughly the eastern 2/3 of Kansas. It is an erect perennial has stiff, hairy, and sometimes glandular up to two-foot long leaves. The two to five-inch inflorescences are scattered along a flowering stem that can be up to nine-foot tall. Both central disc and outer seed-producing ray flowers help cue that this species is in the Sunflower (Asteraceae) family. Compass plant thrives in both lowland prairies with clay loam to silt loam soils as well as dry, hillside prairie habitat with rocky calcareous soils.
Broken stems exude a gummy resin that can be chewed like gum, and the genus name Silphium comes from the Greek word “silphion”, referring to a North African plant bearing resin. The word “laciniate” means to cut or slash into narrow, irregular lobes which describes the compass plant leaves. The common name refers to the plants tendency to align basal leaves generally north and south, which helps the plant save water by deflecting most of the hot, mid-day summer sunlight.
Once developed over 4-5 years, 15-foot deep compass plant roots make this species extremely drought-tolerant and long-lived. It is an aesthetically-pleasing option for the urban landscape thanks to bright yellow flowers in July to August and stately leaves holding their shape through the winter. If you don’t weed-out new seedlings, however, the tall-statured compass plant can take over a garden.
Compass plant flowers are pollinated primarily by long-tongued bees, but the flowers also attract many other bees and flies and occasionally butterflies. A host of insects eat the plant’s vegetation including a prairie cicada (roots), Silphium beetle (stems and flower heads), gall wasps (stems), and an aphid (sucking juice from the stem). Birds and small mammals eat the large ½-inch seeds. Cattle eat young compass plant leaves and will eradicate this species over time on regularly-grazed pastures.
Seeds show improved germination success with at least two to three months of cold, wet stratification.
Text by Brad Guhr
Click for details
Also known as blue false indigo, Baptisia australis is found in roughly the eastern 2/3 of Kansas. One to four-foot tall, it is a stout and erect perennial with smooth, waxy stems/leaves, and thrives in prairies and open woodland habitats with soils ranging from limestone to clay. The recognizable pea-like flower and three-leaflet compound leaf help cue that this species is a nitrogen-fixing legume in the bean (Fabaceae) family.
The name derivation for Baptisia comes from the Greek word bapto meaning “to dye” and for australis, the Latin meaning is “southern”. The variety name minor (Latin for “small”) refers to the smaller leaves when compared with eastern varieties. The flowers when squeezed yield an indigo-colored dye, and the name false indigo makes reference to the color being an inferior substitute for true indigo (genus Indigofera) in making dyes.
The April to early June flowers of blue wild indigo make it an attractive landscaping plant. Its six-foot root system develops slowly and new plants need roughly five years of establishment before flowering. Ripe seeds become loose in the pods that resemble a baby rattle.
Baptisia flowers attract bumblebees as pollinators, the vegetation is a host plant for the wild indigo duskywing butterfly, and a Baptisia seed pod weevil lays its eggs in the seed pods where larvae hatch and feed on the seeds. All parts of the plant contain poisonous alkaloids and cattle tend to avoid eating it.
The ripe bean seeds develop a hard coat that wears down slowly. To greatly improve seed germination success of hardened seeds, scarify them with medium sandpaper or soak in hot water before applying cold, wet stratification. Collecting pods a bit green before seed hardening occurs has been shown to allow germination without any treatment.
Text by Brad Guhr
Woolly verbena (Verbena stricta) is the Kansas Native Plant Society 2019 Wildflower of the Year (WOY). It is also known by the common name hoary vervain.
Found throughout Kansas, this two to five-foot tall, stout and erect perennial with dense hairs on stems and leaves thrives in dry prairies, pastures, and disturbed areas. With up to 12-foot deep roots, this species is very drought tolerant.
In a natural prairie setting, woolly verbena is not aggressive. However, cattle do not like the bitter taste of this species so when competing species are eaten, it will spread in a grazed pasture. Even though this species has a square stem and opposite leaves like all plants in the mint family, woolly verbena is in the closely related Verbenaceae or vervain family.
The flowers are five-petaled and fused at the base to form a tube. Purple ½” flowers bloom in pencil-like terminal clusters late summer, July to September. Seeds form as four nutlets per flower and are eaten by small birds and mammals. Leaves are larval host food for common buckeye butterflies.
Woolly verbena is a popular species to have in a native plant garden due to its erect form and showy late season color. It can bloom for 4-6 weeks, attracts a variety of pollinators, and spreads easily by seed when competition is low. Seeds germinate readily with two months of cold, wet stratification.
Text by Brad Guhr
At 1 to 3 feet in height, Cobaea beardtongue is clump-forming with erect stems, leaves that are opposite, clasping, serrate, dark green above and dull shiny green below. It is found throughout the eastern 2/3 of Kansas in dry open prairies, eroded pastures, and hillsides in limestone-based, sandy, or rocky soils where competition from other species is limited.
The penstemons were formerly in the Scrophulariaceae or Figwort family, but are now in the family Plantaginaceae (Plantain family). Penstemon cobaea also goes by the common names cobaea beardtongue, prairie penstemon, prairie beardtongue, foxglove penstemon, and foxglove beardtongue.
The name “penstemon” makes reference to its 5-parted flower (five fused petals and five stamens). In addition to four fertile stamens, the one sterile stamen has tufts of hairs at the bottom of the tubular-shaped flower that can look like a bearded tongue; hence the name “beardtongue.”
With showy, large (2”), white to pink to purple flowers in May and June, this species is a popular landscaping plant to use in full sun native gardens where it grows well in dry to medium well-drained soils. Pods of cobaea penstemon produce a high volume of seeds which readily germinate after 30 days of cold/moist stratification.
Penstemon cobaea attracts a variety of wildlife including bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.
Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) is the Kansas Native Plant Society 2017 Wildflower of the Year (WOY). Plains coreopsis is 2 to 4 feet tall with many yellow and reddish brown terminal flowers blooming June through September. Leaves are divided, narrowly linear and oppositely arranged on the stem. This species is found in damp disturbed areas, roadside ditches and low, sandy to silty mixed grass prairies and floodplains statewide. Plains coreopsis is in the Asteraceae or sunflower family.
Plains coreopsis is the first annual species the plant resources committee has chosen for WOY. It is a cosmopolitan plant existing throughout the state that can produce stunning displays of color along roadsides.
It is also easy to grow in gardens from seed. The Latin word tinctoria means “to impart color” and flowers can be cut and soaked to produce a colorful dye.
For more photos and a detailed description of Coreopsis tinctoria, visit kswildflower.org.
Golden alexanders (Zizia aurea) is the Kansas Native Plant Society (KNPS) 2016 Wildflower of the Year (WOY). Golden alexanders is 12″ to 36″ tall with yellow flowers in flat-topped umbels blooming in May and June. This species is found in moist prairies, wet thickets, open woodlands, ditches and along streams in the eastern 1/3 of the state. Even though it is commonly found in moist habitat, it still survives well through dry summers. Zizia aurea is in the Apiaceae or parsley/carrot family, but it may cause vomiting in humans if eaten and should be considered toxic.
The plant resources committee chose this species primarily for its uniqueness among past choices for WOY. It represents a new family on our list (Apiaceae), it is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies, it is found in at least a 1/3 of Kansas counties, and it is shade-adaptable which makes it a good landscaping plant since so many yards have shade.
Zizia aurea is an excellent source of pollen and nectar for numerous species of large and small bees. Azure butterflies, Soldier Beetles, Ladybird Beetles, several spiders and wasps are also attracted to the flowers.
For more photos and a detailed description of Zizia aurea, visit kswildflower.org.
Spider milkweed (Asclepias viridis), also known as green antelopehorn, is the Kansas Native Plant Society (KNPS) 2015 Wildflower of the Year (WOY). Spider milkweed is 18” to 24” tall with green flowers showing May through July. It is found on dry prairies in the eastern 2/3 of the state with a substrate ranging from sand to limestone. An especially common species in prairie pastures, cattle do not find it palatable due to its production of toxic cardiac glycosides. The common names are given for the common presence of crab spiders hunting for insect prey around the flowers, and small antelope horn-like appearance of the seed pods. Previously belonging to the milkweed family (Asclepiadaceae,) the genus Asclepias is now classified in the subfamily Asclepiadoideae of the dogbane family (Apocynaceae.)
The plant resources committee chose this species primarily for its importance as a host plant for the monarch butterfly which has had a perilous population decline in recent years. According to Chip Taylor from Monarch Watch, Asclepias viridis is the next most desired host plant for monarchs after common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). With importance to monarchs, showy flowers, exquisite seed pods, and a shorter stature and less weedy growth habit than common milkweed (perhaps making it more suitable for native landscaping), Asclepias viridis emerged as the best choice for this year’s KNPS WOY selection.
Little Bluestem Grass grows in every county in Kansas and was selected by the Kansas State Legislature as the State Grass of Kansas on July 1, 2010. With an endearing name like Little Bluestem it is easy to fall in love with this beautiful native grass.
Little Bluestem is a warm season perennial bunch or clumping grass growing 2 to 3’ tall. New growth starts in April when the soil warms and continues as the greenish-blue leaves mature and slowly change to more blue and eventually to a stunning russet-coppery autumn color. The tiny flowers on Little Bluestem are of a fuzzy white appearance and there may be 100 or more on each bunch of Little Blue. In early autumn the fuzzy white flowers show up well with the reddish coloring of the grass stems. With these colorful stems blowing in the winter winds it is just one more reason to plant some clumps of the Kansas State Grass.
The scientific name for Little Bluestem is Schizachyrium scoparium. Searching for the meaning of the word ‘schizachyrium’ it is suggested it comes from two Latin words. ‘Schizein’-to split- and ‘achyron’ – chaff. One other suggestion is that it was actually split from the genus Andropogon of which Little Bluestem was at one time listed. It is still sometimes listed as Andropogon scoparium. The name ‘scoparium’ is from the Latin ‘scopa’ or ‘scopario’- broom or broom like. If you cut off a thick clump of Little Bluestem at ground level, tie a string tightly around the clump and insert a stick for a handle it would make a decent broom.
“Lead plant” is named for the gray leaden color of the foliage. It is a member of the bean or legume family, which is recognized by compound leaves and legumes for fruits. The grayish-green velvety foliage and orange-dotted purple flower wands of lead plant make a a pleasing addition to a home planting. Leadplant grows 2 to 3 1/2 feet tall or taller if it is allowed to become shrubby. The leaves are pinnately compound, with leaflets that become smaller and denser toward the tip of the leaf. The short dense covering of hairs on the leaves and stem produce a grayish cast to the plant. Lead plant blooms from June to late July or early August. The small flowers are packed in dense spike-like racemes at the tips of stems and from the upper leaf axils. The single small petal is purple, above which are protruding orange stamens. The flowers at the bottom of the raceme are the first to open. Each raceme blooms for a few weeks as new flowers continue to open. The “spikes” can be cut and dried as soon as the pods form. They add an unusual purple-gray color to dried plant arrangements.
Lead plant is a drought resistant perennial, with one to several stems growing from a woody crown. The stems are often branched. If not cut, the plant becomes a shrub with woody perennial stems up to 1/2 inch thick. If grazed, mowed or burned, it grows anew from the crown each year, but even these annual stems become somewhat woody by midsummer. The roots are branched, 6 1/2 to 16 1/2 feet deep, and absorb mainly from below a 3 foot depth. Some shallow roots spread out horizontally from the plant. The breaking of these roots as settlers plowed the prairie sounded like shoestrings snapping and is the basis for the common name, “Prairie Shoestring.”
Yellow Prairie Coneflower belongs to the sunflower or composite family (Asteraceae). As is typical in this family, the inflorescence has yellow ray flowers and tiny disk flowers spiraling around the long center head.
The interesting “long-nosed” flower head, the long flowering season through most of the summer, and the ease of propagation and growth make the yellow prairie coneflower an excellent plant for the garden. This plant grows 1 1/2 to 3 feet tall. The green stems are lined with low light-colored longitudinal ridges and both leaves and stems are covered with white hairs lying along the surface. This makes the foliage appear grayish or dusty green. The leaves are pinnately divided into many narrow segments.
Yellow prairie coneflower blooms from early June to late August or September if there is sufficient moisture. The flower heads are borne singly on long stalks at the end of each stem or branch. The central disc of the flower is columnar and 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches tall. It is surrounded by four to eleven drooping yellow ray flowers (one color variety has partly or entirely reddish brown ray flowers). The columnar disc is covered with grayish green scales, which open into tiny brown disc flowers. Each flower head remains in bloom for many days as new groups of disc flowers continue to open from the bottom to the top of the column. Yellow prairie coneflower heads make long lasting cut flowers. Both the foliage and flowers are fragrant.
The yellow prairie coneflower is a hearty long-lived perennial. It has one or several upright stems arising from a crown, each stem usually branching many times. Leaves are borne on the stems in alternate fashion and are most densely arranged toward the ends of stems at the base of flowering stalks. The taproot grows 2 to 6 feet deep depending on the nature of the soil but has many branches in the first few inches of soil. Yellow prairie coneflower volunteers from seed but it does not spread aggressively. Young plants often bloom in the first season if started in early spring from seed.
As a member of the Mimosa family, catclaw sensitive briar is closely related to the bean family, with its compound leaves and a seed pod. However mimosas have small flowers with long filaments, and the flowers are densely clustered in balls.
Catclaw sensitive brier has attractive fine-cut foliage, an interesting response by the leaf to touch and dainty yellow-dotted pink flower balls. The stems are spreading and vine-like, 1 to 7 feet long; but the plant is seldom more than 1 foot high. The stems are strongly ribbed and have many recurved prickles which can catch on clothes or skin. The leaves are bipinnately compound, with a central stalk to which are attached four to eight pairs of leaflet- bearing stalks. Each leaflet-bearing stalk has nine to fifteen pairs of small elliptic pointed leaflets. When touched or shaken, these leaves fold and droop. The leaves also fold at night or on dark cloudy days.
Catclaw sensitive brier blooms from early June to July, or later if conditions are favorable. The inflorescence is a dense fluffy ball of small pink flowers with protruding long pink filaments supporting small yellow anthers. The flower balls are 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter and are supported on moderately long stalks (peduncles) from the axils of leaves near the ends of stems.
Catclaw sensitive brier is a perennial. A number of sprawling branched stems arise from a woody crown and become somewhat woody as they mature. The bipinnately compound leaves are arranged alternately. The plant has a deep root. It does not spread aggressively. Young plants will usually bloom in their second season of growth.
The 2008 Wildflower of the Year, Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), chosen by Kansas Associated Garden Clubs and Kansas Native Plant Society, is one of those delightful spring surprises. It is found throughout the state on dry upland prairies or dry woods. Fringed Pucoon is usually not common enough to be taken for granted; but the occurrence of the blooming plant during April and May is sufficient that alert wildflower fans have a good chance of spotting the elegant, but modest, perennial. What most searchers notice first are the trumpet-shaped bright yellow flowers, with their charming frilled lobes. They are found in crowded clusters at the top of the 4 to 16 inch tall plants. Dark green, narrow, linear leaves, arranged in alternate pattern on multiple stems provide a complementary bouquet-like setting for the sun-burst of flowers.
These showy early spring flowers are cross-pollinated. However, a second set of self-pollinating flowers is produced in late spring or summer. The casual observer may be unaware of these later flowers because they are much smaller and the colorful corolla is minute (less than 1/4 inch long) or completely missing.
The “fringed” part of the name is obvious from the decorative edges of the five-lobes of each flower. “Puccoon” is an Indian word used to refer to plants that produce dyes. In the case of most species of the Puccoons, including L. incisum, a purple dye is produced from the roots. This group of plants also has a variety of medicinal applications. The genus “Lithospermum” (“stone seed”) comes from the single seed in each of the 4 shiny, white nutlets of the fruits. “Incism” means “cut into” and, of course, is describing the margins of the flower lobes. Alternative common names for L. incisum are: Wayside gromwell, Narrowleaf gromwell, and puccoon.
Because this is such an attractive plant, KNPS members may be interested in adding it to their own native plant gardens.
Former KNPS President Jeff Hansen reports that he has found Fringed Puccoon “pretty easy to grow.” He has been growing it from seed and has had good germination and also good seed production from the adult plants. He notes that seeds may germinate in either spring or fall.
Kelly Kindscher in Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie recommends root cuttings as a alternative means of propagation, and in some cases, a more reliable approach over either seeds or transplanting. He says, “Root cuttings 5 cm long, taken in the fall and treated with a root hormone, will produced some success. The cutting should be planted right side up 5 cm deep.” We would suggest that KNPS members also check other sources in their area for Fringed Puccoon. Tell your local nursery about “Wildflower of the Year” and encourage them to stock and promote Fringed Puccoon.
Text by Nancy Goulden
Purple Poppy Mallow (also called Wine Cups), in the Malvaceae (Mallow Family), is a low growing, somewhat sprawling plant, generally with the ends of branches erect. The root is thick and relatively deep in the soil.
The leaves are palmately (palm-like or hand-like) divided into 5-7 segments, the segments toothed, parted, or lobed, petiolate (with a petiole = leaf stalk) and wider (to about 4 inches) than long (to about 3 inches).
The flowers are solitary, rose to purple, and are generally above the leaves, with peduncles (leaf stalk) to 4 inches long or longer. Calyx of five sepals; petals 5, to 1 inch or more long; stamens forming a column that surrounds the ovary (at maturity the fruit containing seeds) and style (the stalk-like structure arising from the apex of the ovary).
The fruit is called a schizocarp, which is a dry at maturity and splits into segments containing seeds.
This species is found from the upper Midwest south into northern Mexico, and west to Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. It grows in dry prairies, prairie roadsides, and open woods. As far as known, its only economic value is as an ornamental.
Text by Dr. Stephen L. Timme
Pitcher or Blue Sage is a hardy drought-resistant plant easy to propagate and grow. It produces attractive blue flowers in late summer and fall. It grows from 2 to 4 feet tall. The foliage is gray-green. Although it has a fragrance, the odor of the foliage is not nearly as strong as in many other members of the mint family. Blue sage usually begins blooming in July (a few may begin earlier) and may bloom until early October. Light blue two-lipped flowers are borne in a series of dense clusters around the upper part of the stem and on short branches. Only a few flowers in a cluster are in bloom at anyone time. The flowers are 1/2 to 1 inch in length. The corollas drop readily when the flowers are picked.
Blue sage is a warm-season, long-lived perennial. Each plant has one major stem or a few stems growing in a clump. Each stem is simple or has a few branches. Like many other mints blue sage has a square stem and opposite leaves. The narrow leaves extend out from all four sides of the stem, and are produced from the bottom to the terminal inflorescence. The lower leaves are usually shed early. When this plant is grown without competition, it may become too tall and fall over. Moderate clipping early in the season will maintain a better form. The branched roots are deep (to 8 feet). Weaver (1968) reported that plants of this species doubled their root depth in response to extreme drought. Blue sage may volunteer from seed but it does not spread aggressively. Seedlings started in early spring will usually flower by fall.
The fruits consist of one or two light brown resin-dotted nutlets borne at the bottom of the persistent calyx tube. The nutlets are elliptical, flattened and approximately 1/8 inch long. They should be collected as soon as the calyx becomes dry, usually in September. The nutlets can be removed from the calyx tube and separated from the chaff with sieves.
Blue sage grows in the eastern 3/4 of Kansas. The variety grandiflora is also found in parts of Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, Nebraska and Missouri. The species is found east to South Carolina and Florida. It grows on open sunny sites in well-drained upland prairie, and is common along roadsides and in other moderately disturbed habitats.
Stevens (1961) wrote many years ago, “Though this species has contributed to the production of popular garden hybrids, we esteem its uncontaminated self, in its wild estate, above any kinds pampered in the garden.” The ease with which it can be grown and the long blooming season are characteristics that recommend this plant. It can be grown easily as a ground cover among other taller plants or in a rock garden; or it can be used to add color to a lawn or garden through much of the summer. The somewhat hairy stems are multi-branched. They are usually prostrate, creeping over the ground and often rooting at the lower nodes, but turned up at the end. Occasionally upright stems make the plant appear bushy. The stems are usually square in cross-section and often tinged with red. Although these stems may be 1 to 2 1/2 feet in length, the plant itself is rarely more than 1 foot tall. The leaves are deeply dissected into 3 main divisions but each of these is incised into irregular small lobes or teeth. The dark green leaves are somewhat hairy at least along the margins. Flowering begins in early May and may continue throughout the summer and into the fall if moisture is sufficient. The flowers are produced in showy clusters at the end of each stem and branch. The clusters are at first broad and flat, but later elongate into thick flowering and fruiting spikes. New flowers continue to be formed at the tip of the stem while the old flowers below form fruits hidden in hairy green bracts and calyxes. Each pink to rose-purple flower is approximately 1/2 inch across. It has a corolla tube with 5 spreading lobes at its apex, each lobe notched at its tip. The flowers may be cut to use in fresh bouquets but they are not long-lasting.
Rose vervain is a short-lived perennial, often dying after 2 or 3 years. A number of stems may come out of one crown but each stem may also be rooted at some of its nodes. The leaves have an opposite arrangement on the stem. If moisture is sufficient, the plant will remain green all summer, and some of the lower leaves and stems may remain green over winter if they have some protection. The roots are fibrous and rather shallow. Although the plant spreads by the rooting of its prostrate stems, it is easy to control. If it is started from seed in the spring it may bloom later the same year.
The fruit is a grayish-black to black one-seeded hard nutlet. The surface is covered with small ridges and papillae. Four nutlets develop inside the persistent calyx of each flower. Seeds can be collected when the calyxes containing the nutlets turn light brown and dry, 6 to 8 weeks after blooming has started. After removing the small calyxes from the seed spike, nutlets can be picked out easily. The nutlets should be dark and hard.
Rose vervain grows naturally in the eastern 1/3 of Kansas. Its range extends from North Carolina and Kentucky west to Iowa and southeastern Nebraska and south to Florida and eastern Texas.
Rose vervain is found in open prairies, particularly on rocky hillsides. It is also found in pastures, along roadsides and in open woods. Wilson (1992) says it can be planted in sandy or rocky soil in full sun or light shade, particularly afternoon shade.