Monday, June 29, 2015

Goatbeard - Not a Dandelion

Tragopogon dubius - Changing beauty by focusing deeper
Ever since we first walked the fields of Bull Mills in spring, I have been intrigued with the Goat's Beard, a.k.a. Salsifly, Tragopogon dubiusIt resembles a dandelion on steroids but is so much more.  It can grow waist high and both the flower and the seed head are much larger than a dandelion, allowing you to see the intricate details without magnification.

The seed head first appears as a tightly wrapped green flame with the long strands packed inside.  As it opens as seen below, it briefly goes through a stage where ghostly circles appear deep inside, only to disappear once it is fully expanded.

Typical of a widespread species, this Goat's Beard has accumulated a number of regional names such as western salsify, western goat's-beard, wild oysterplant, yellow salsify, yellow goat's beard, goat's beard, goatsbeard, common salsify, and salsifyI say "this Goat's Beard" because of the other plants of the same common name such as Aruncus dioicus, Astilbe biternata and Tragopogon pratensis.  That is one reason botanists always use the fancy Latin names.

Tragopodon dubius
Dandelion - Wikimedia

Both the dandelion and T. dubius are exotic plants originating in Eurasia and transported here by humans. The fine line between exotic species and invasive species is complex.

Nature determines where it can exist or thrive (climate, soil, competing species, etc.) and society measures its relative value or harm and the economic cost of keeping it controlled.  Witness the spartan Missouri Noxious Plant list of 12 species and neighboring Illinois Invasive Plant List of 102 species.

One person's invasive can be another's favorite, as we see in the proliferation of Callery Pear species, a.k.a. Bradford Pear.  They line (and even name) our parkways and driveways in Springfield while being listed as invasive in Illinois.

"Take our dandelion- please!" with apologies to Henny Youngman.
The dandelion became a botanical pariah because of its invasion of our carefully manicured lawns, a socially desirable grass monoculture that is seemingly abhorred by nature which favors diversity.  American lawns seemingly evolved from an envy of the English manor house lawns that were maintained by a team of servants and the invention of the lawn mower which allowed the homeowner to play servant for several hours a week.  Dandelions can thrive and spread easily in this artificial monoculture.

Our T. dubius on the other hand has avoided urbanization and is modest in its spread in the wild.  This may be partially because of its height, making it vulnerable to the close cropping, zero-turn lawn mower, the more civilized cousin of my ATV.  It appears sparingly scattered in our warm season grass fields and deliberately neglected field edges where it is careful not to overwhelm its neighbors.  In this setting it provides an occasional splash of color while respecting its neighbors.

Ghostly circles appear early...
..... then seem to fade as it fully expands

T. dubius is a good nectar source for a variety of bees and flies but mammals avoid it because of its bitter milky sap.  As long as it continues to play well with neighboring plants, it will remain one of my favorites, even if they don't respect it in Illinois.

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