Monday, May 30, 2011

Problematical Pussytoes

I got on my bike in good time this year. I wanted to catch the early wildflowers along the Niagara Trail, which follows the length of the Niagara River. I live in Niagara-on-the Lake, at the north end of this trail, so my usual route takes me out past Fort George to the river, then southward towards Queenston. At the top of the high, steep west bank of the river, almost within sight of Fort George, is a wide swath of small plants displaying a most curious flower. Each plant carries a single stalk about sixteen inches high, which curves gently towards the sun. At the head of the stalk is a cluster of between ten and twenty little white florets. The florets are cone shaped with rounded heads, and composed of silky whitish hairs surrounded by tiny purple bristles and a ragged pale green calyx. The cluster looks just like, yes, pussytoes.

I took out my trusty Newcomb Wildflower Guide and quickly found that Pussytoes belong to the genus Antennaria. Another common name for these flowers is Early Everlastings. But now comes the tricky bit: which, of a number of species, is this plant? Newcomb precisely describes six different species, but goes on to say that there are about a dozen species altogether in the area ( Northeastern and North-Central North America). They are, he says ‘… very similar in appearance and difficult to identify.’

The species growing here in Niagara appears to share attributes of a number of the varieties described by Newcomb. Firstly, the largest leaves are fairly broad, about 2” long by 7/8” wide, with three main veins beneath. With these attributes we have 3 varieties listed . We can dismiss A. solitaria because we are working with several flower heads. I think we can dismiss A. parlinii (Smooth Pussytoes) because it is reported to have bright green and nearly smooth basal leaves. Our leaves are slightly woolly on the topside, and a quiet sage green in colour. That leaves us with the Plantain-leaved Pussytoes, which is good as far as it goes, but – there is no mention of basal shoots in the description, and the basal leaves illustrated have fairly rounded or blunt tips. The plants I am studying here have vigorous basal shoots which turn up strongly at their ends, and the leaves are decidedly pointed. Basal shoots are only mentioned in connection with a group of varieties that have rather smaller basal leaves, with one prominent vein! Field Pussytoes (A. neglecta) is reported to have basal shoots very slender and prostrate, with small leaves that only overlap at the tip of the shoot. Pity. Our leaves overlap considerably all along the shoot, and the shoot is not prostrate. Smaller Pussytoes (A. neodioica) fits the bill nicely, shootwise, carrying a note that the ‘….basal shoots (are) short, with overlapping leaves, and turned upward at the tip. Lower leaves end in a tiny abrupt point. Yes they do! But wait a minute – we’re only supposed to have one main vein, but we have three. Canada Pussytoes (A. canadensis) is similar but the upper surfaces of the leaves is bright green and smooth.

So, what variety is this? I should be so pleased to find out, and hope someone may tune in here and help with their expertise.

Allow me to summarise the features of this interesting plant. Maximum height 19”. Flower heads several, with purple external hairs. Stem leaves very narrow and well-spaced. Basal shoots are vigorous and thrust strongly upward at the tips. Basal leaves overlapping, dull green and slightly woolly on top surface, very pale, almost white and heavily woolled underneath, with tiny abrupt points. Largest leaves are about 2” long by 7/8” wide with three prominent main veins.

And now for a further complication. A few hundred feet further along the embankment I came upon a very different variety of Pussytoes. These plants were much smaller than those I have just described, with a maximum height of stem of about 9 inches. Instead of appearing white, the flower heads had an overall appearance of dark red, due to the bristles being much stronger and more prominent. The flower heads averaged far fewer florets each, usually between five and ten; the whole flower head therefore having a width of only about 1.5cm, versus 3cm or more for the previous variety. The flower heads match the profile of ‘Smaller Pussytoes’, as illustrated by Newcomb. Basal shoots and leaves are virtually identical to the variety already described, except for being only half the size, the maximum leaf size being about 3x1.5cm. The tiny sharp tips are present on the leaves. Except for the overall flower colour, I should categorize these as ‘Smaller Pussytoes’ A. neodioica. I am rather lost here, but I shall for the time being label this latter variety then as A. neodioica. The plant first described I shall simply call “Larger Pussytoes” for the moment.

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