Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Prairie sunflower (Stiff sunflower)

Some native plants are unmistakable, but nailing down the ID on today’s wildflowers has been a challenge. When I first photographed a large colony of these plants on Mike Delaney’s restored prairie in Dallas County, I assumed they were sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) because of the serrated leaves. However, John Pearson of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources commented in the Iowa Wildflower Report Facebook group, “This may be Prairie Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus), note reddish disc flowers. The long, leafless upper stems, however, remind me of Western Sunflower (H. occidentalis).” Leland Searles, another expert on native plants, mentioned that “sunflowers can be confusing.”

I ruled out western sunflower for a couple of reasons. Mike collected the seed that spawned this colony at Tipton Prairie, a never-plowed patch of land in Greene County in the northwestern quadrant of Iowa. But western sunflower (sometimes called fewleaf sunflower) is primarily found in the eastern part of the state. In addition, several sources confirm the central disk florets on western sunflower flowerheads are yellow. Most of the flowerheads on these plants had reddish centers, which is typical for prairie sunflowers.

Mike thought the plants might be giant sunflowers (Helianthus giganteus), but the central disk florets on that plant are darker yellow. Also, there can be more than one flowerhead at the top of the upper stems on giant sunflower plants. These plants had one flowerhead per stem, another characteristic feature of prairie sunflowers. Finally, the upper part of the stems on Mike’s plants had no leaves. Giant sunflower plants have leaves on the upper stems.

So, I’m calling these prairie sunflowers. Sometimes known as stiff sunflowers, Helianthus pauciflorus plants are native to most of the U.S. and Canada. I haven’t seen them anywhere other than on Mike’s land. Next year I hope to visit Tipton Prairie in the late summer or early fall, when they would be blooming. UPDATE: After I published this post, Mike told me he didn’t find any of these at Tipton Prairie this year, but he did find them in the “Rippey strip,” a narrow patch of native prairie several miles long next to the 144 Diagonal road near Rippey in Greene County. He believes he must have collected the original seed from the Rippey area.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Bottle gentian

I’m pleased to share more of Wendie Schneider’s photography today. Last month Wendie gave me permission to publish her pictures of round-headed bush clover. She found today’s featured plant in a restored Story County prairie as well.

Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) is native to much of the northern U.S. and Canada, but not widespread. Sometimes known as Andrew’s gentian, it thrives in wet habitats: “moist black soil prairies, openings in floodplain forests, thickets, fens, and swampy areas near bodies of water.”

Like its relative downy gentian, bottle gentian typically has blue or purple flowers, though the blossoms can be pink or white. The distinguishing feature of this plant: its flowers stay closed even at the peak of the blooming period, inspiring the alternate common name closed bottle gentian.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: False boneset

This week’s featured plant is far less showy than the brightly-colored Jerusalem artichoke or jewelweed, which bloom around the same time. However, it attracts a wide variety of pollinators and tolerates drought “better than most plants in the tallgrass prairie,” a plus after this unusually dry Iowa summer.

False boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides) is native to most of the U.S., except for New England and the states west of the Rockies. I took all of the enclosed pictures at a prairie Mike Delaney has been restoring on farmland he bought in Dallas County during the late 1980s.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Jerusalem artichoke

Although Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) has nothing to do with the historic city in the Middle East, I thought it would be appropriate to feature these late summer wildflowers on the eve of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah.

Why are these plants, native to most of North America, called Jerusalem artichoke? One theory: “The Jerusalem part of the name probably came from a mispronunciation of “girasole,” which is Italian for ‘sunflower.’” During the 17th century, European explorers found what had been “an important food plant for native Americans” for centuries and brought tubers back to the European continent.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s website notes,

Plants are still grown today for harvest of the tubers which begins about 2 weeks after the flowers fade. Each plant typically produces 2-5 pounds of tubers per year. Raw tubers have a nutty flavor. Tubers may be grated raw into salads, boiled and/or mashed somewhat like potatoes, roasted or added to soups. Unlike potatoes, tubers do not contain starch. They do contain inulin which converts into fructose which is better tolerated by people with type 2 diabetes than sucrose.

Some people find the taste of the tubers (called “sunchokes”) similar to artichokes. If you decide to grow these plants, be aware that they can spread aggressively and “are difficult to remove from the garden. Tiny pieces of tuber left in the soils will sprout.”

Jerusalem artichokes are blooming now near many Iowa trails and roadsides. I took all of the enclosed pictures on trails that run along the banks of North Walnut Creek in Windsor Heights or Walnut Creek in Des Moines.

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Iowa wildflower Wednesday: Jewelweed (Spotted touch-me-not)

Ever since I featured a relative of this week’s featured wildflowers three years ago, I’ve been on the hunt for Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Sometimes called orange jewelweed or spotted touch-me-not, this plant is native to most of the U.S. and Canada.

Jewelweed thrives in wet habitats: “moist woodlands, partially or lightly shaded floodplains along rivers, edges of woodland paths, swamps, seeps and fens, and roadside ditches.” Anecdotally, less of it is blooming in Iowa this year, due to our unusually dry summer. But a reader tipped me to a large colony of these bright orange flowers at the edge of Greenwood Pond in Des Moines.

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