Robert W. Freckmann Herbarium
University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point

Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

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Featured Plant: Silphium laciniatum L. var. laciniatum

Compass plant

Family: Asteraceae or Aster

Silphium: old Greek generic name referring to resinous juice


laciniatum: Latin for "slashed or lacerated" referring to the cut leaves

Compass Plant

Grows to 7 feet tall in sunny open dry to dry-mesic prairies and often found along roadside remnants.

The large basal deeply cut leaves, usually pointing North to South, minimize water loss from the sun's direct rays.

 The yellow flower, to 5 inches across, follows the sun's movement during the day. The young flower has a center of florets showing brown anther tubes until the yellow styles extend from the from them (as above) giving the shaggy appearance.

In late fall, the seeds mature around the outside of the center disc of the flower surrounding the sterile, infertile florets in the center. The seeds are large resembling a sunflower seed.

The tapered root can be several feet long digging deep into the dry soil for moisture. This plant can live to be over 100 years old and survive repeated mowings. (photo by Virginia Kline)

Ethnobotany: The roots were used to induce vomiting. Plant's other uses were for arthritis, treat dry skin, increase urine and mothers milk, and as strong laxative. The early leaves can be eaten in salads. The early pioneers gave this plant its name referring to the north-south alignment of its leaves. It was said to be used as a "compass" on cloudy days as they navigated their way though the tall prairie vegetation.

Other facts: "It is an ordinary graveyard, bordered by the usual spruces, and studded with the usual pink granite or white marble headstones, each with the usual Sunday bouquet of red or pink geraniums. It is extraordinary only in harboring within the sharp angle of its fence, a pin-point remnant of the native prairie on which the graveyard was established in the 1840's. Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or cutleaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of buffaloes is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked" (Also Leopold, 1949).

Propagation: This is a good plant to use in prairie restorations as it grows well from seed collected in mid to late fall. Scattered the seeds in late fall to early winter in dry to mesic areas. Depending on condition, it could bloom in 2 to 5 years.

Blooming Buddies include: yellow - yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), ox-eye sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); white - daisy fleabane (Erigeron strigosus); pink (Monarda fistulosa subsp. fistulosa), Illinois tick-trefoil (Desmodium illinoense).

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Vascular Plants

Plants of Wisconsin

Herbarium

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