Prairie Dock in Winter

by Carl Strang

One of the larger prairie plants is prairie dock, a member of the diverse genus Silphium.

When blooming, its flower stalks tower above nearly all the other prairie plants.

When blooming, its flower stalks tower above nearly all the other prairie plants.

In winter the fruiting stalks remain strong and tall.

A prairie dock stem at Mayslake Forest Preserve

A prairie dock stem at Mayslake Forest Preserve

Curiously, the leaves abscise, though they remain close to the base of the stalk.

The broad, large, sandpapery textured leaves become gray with white speckles.

The broad, large, sandpapery textured leaves become gray with white speckles.

Cutting off the leaves is not universal in this genus. The leaves remain attached in compass plant.

The tangle of leaves around the base of the stalk is evident in this example.

The tangle of leaves around the base of the stalk is evident in this example.

I wonder if the broad leaves might catch the wind and tip the stalk, limiting seed dispersal, if the prairie dock held onto them. The cut leaves of compass plant would not pose this problem.

The most surprising and beautiful feature of prairie dock in winter, to my eye, is the core of the fruiting structure.

It has a trumpet shape, with a whorl of curled strands around the base. Varying numbers of the oval bracts (called phyllaries in the composite family) remain tenuously connected.

It has a trumpet shape, with a whorl of curled strands around the base. Varying numbers of the oval bracts (called phyllaries in the composite family) remain tenuously connected.

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