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Green on the Prairie in February!

Wandering on Zoerb Prairie recently in mid-February I saw the expected brown from last year’s plants. Most were grasses including little bluestem, prairie dropseed, and Indian grass but there were also many others mixed in such as leadplant, goldenrod, and boneset. But all in their winter brown or gray.

 


Until I saw this conspicuous green rosette:

 

Hmmm, what is that? Probably a weed…maybe horseweed? No, horseweed, from my memory is an annual, so it shouldn’t be out in rosette form now. But, there has been a lot of warm weather, so maybe even the annual plants have had time to form rosettes? I don’t think so. So, likely a biennial. Which one? Should I pull it? No, not without knowing what it is.

 

Well, luckily I had my ruler and 10 loupe with me to collect some data: 

 

The biggest leaf was about 6 cm, sparsely toothed, with an easily seen vein pattern. The 10 loupe showed fine dense hairs on both sides of the leaves, especially the smaller ones in the center of the rosette.

 

Back home, I had some time to look at some handy references. Here’s one from Cornell University:

 


Rosette-Forming Weeds of Early Spring

In early spring there are a wide variety of weeds that have either overwintered as rosettes or are just-emerging seedlings. Some species, like horseweed, may be herbicide resistant; other species like goldenrods may be tolerant of many chemical and physical control measures. How do you tell them apart and choose the right control strategy? Careful observation can help you identify your weed in time to plan effective management this season. 

After reviewing this and some other references, I think it looks like a plant from the genus Erigeron. Knowing that the Zoerb species list includes Erigeron strigosus, or daisy fleabane, this might be a good guess. Daisy fleabane can be an annual or biennial. But the rather dense fine hairs on the leaves don’t seem to fit. E annuus, or annual fleabane is very similar but is said to be hairier, especially noticed on the stem as the plant grows. So, my best guess is either daisy or annual fleabane. I’ll keep an eye on this plant to see what it turns out to be as it grows. Any other guesses?

 

The name “fleabane” comes from the belief of early settlers that this plant repelled fleas and they would often stuff their mattresses with it. But this is actually said to be more of a myth and is unlikely to be true. It is a pioneer species that grows in disturbed, newly opened areas and is considered a “weed” by many. Others, however, enjoy seeing this native plant. Its flowers provide food for many bees and flies, and the seeds are eaten by many birds such as goldfinches and sparrows. Native Americans used this plant for many medicinal purposes. Today some steep the flowers and leaves to make a nutritious tea.

 

The Erigeron genus is distributed worldwide with around 460 species. Flora of Wisconsin lists 36 species and subspecies in Wisconsin. Five are described in the widely used Wildflowers of Wisconsin book. According to this book, Erigeron is “from Greek eri, ‘early’, and geron, ‘old man’  or ‘old man in the spring’ for the fluffy gray-hair-like seed heads occurring in the spring.”

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