The "Special" Plants of the Bluff Prairies

Updated: Apr 28

The Wisconsin Natural Heritage Working List contains native species in the state felt to be rare and in need of monitoring and protection. There are three classifications of rare plants- endangered, threatened, and special concern. These designations mean the population of a species is low or declining with the severity of the decline being the highest for endangered and lowest for special concern. Friends of the Blufflands has continued its work on some of the bluffs near La Crosse restoring remnant prairies where many of these species are found. During this time, we have observed populations of several special concern plant species that are on this Working List. Here are some of them:


Jeweled Shooting Star, Primula fassattii (in Wisconsin) or Dodecatheon amethystinum:

Jeweled shooting star is said to prefer moist, shaded dolomite and sandstone cliff edges but we have also found it in open, dry sunny areas. It blooms from May to early June and the rose-purple to pink flowers are about an inch long. A similar species with white flowers, prairie shooting star, is found in prairies that are more open, but usually grows in more southern Wisconsin locations. We have not found it on the bluffs in our area. The fruit is an oval capsule in which the seeds are found:


Great Plains Lady's-Tresses, Spiranthes magnicamporum:

There are seven species in the genus Spiranthes in Wisconsin. S magnicamporum is the only one, thus far, that we have found growing in our area. This orchid species is, in part, distinguished from others in its genus by losing its leaves by flowering time and by its pleasant odor said by some to be like vanilla that they can detect even before seeing the plant hidden in the prairie. It flowers in late August to October. Bumblebees are known pollinators- maybe the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee, documented on the bluffs as per previous blog posts, has been at work on our lady's tresses!


White or Death Camas, Anticlea elegant ssp glaucous, formerly known as Zigadenus elegans:

As the name implies, this plant is poisonous containing alkaloids said to be more toxic than strychnine! It is in the lily family, grows up to about three feet and has a distinctive flower about 3/4 of an inch wide with a heart shaped green marking on its whitish petals. It usually grows in full sun along the cliff edges and blooms from June through August.


Naked Broomrape or Cancer-Root, Orobanche uniflora:

This small leafless (and therefore "naked") plant grows about six inches high and has been found only once by us on the bluffs. It is an obligate parasite which means it does not have its own chlorophyll and therefore is completely dependent on its host plant, which can include goldenrods and sunflowers. The plant does not flower every year, but when it does the flowers are about one inch long and bloom from May to June. It is listed as special concern in Wisconsin, but threatened in Minnesota.


Prairie Ragwort, Packera plattensis:

This plant is a biennial or short lived perennial, grows about two feet tall, and has flowers about one inch across that bloom from late May through June. It is somewhat difficult to differentiate from the more common balsam ragwort. A distinguishing feature is cobwebby hairs on prairie ragwort as noted in the following photo. Also included in the photo is a caterpillar which is probably the reversed haploa confusa moth caterpillar, possibly feeding on the ragwort as a host plant.


Cliff Goldenrod, Solidago sciaphila:

Many think of goldenrods as undesirable weeds because they think about the prolific canada goldenrod that can take over fields. But there are many desirable goldenrods, such as showy and stiff, that grow well in the remnant prairies and are quite valuable sources of nectar and pollen for many insects. Cliff goldenrod, though less common, is also a good source of nectar and pollen. It grows about three to four feet in height and is restricted to the Driftless Area. It is usually found growing along cliff edges, as the name implies. It is also listed as special concern in Minnesota.


Friends of the Blufflands, with help and guidance from The Prairie Enthusiasts, will continue to improve the habitats of these "special" plants and other valuable species by restoring, enlarging, and maintaining as many remnant prairies in our area as possible. Please consider joining us by volunteering or by making a contribution via this website. Thanks!


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